On 14 May, 1,100 employees of Amazon Deutschland came out on a one-day strike at three out of seven sites in Germany.
The strikers demanded that Amazon accepts and applies the conditions that exist elsewhere in the German retail and mail order sector which were agreed between the employers’ federation and the ver.di union. According to the German service sector union ver.di, if Amazon paid these union-agreed rates Amazon workers would receive about 9,000 euros more a year through higher hourly rates, incremental payments, holiday and Christmas pay.
One outraged worker explained: "For 5 years Amazon had not paid a single wage increase here in Bad Hersfeld“, adding that it was “only when ver.di came and we began to organise, did we see any pay increases.”
Strike leader Heiner Reimann told reporters: “Amazon bases its pay structure on earning levels in a region and then adds 3 cents so it’s paying above the local average”.
Significantly, Amazon invariably locates in less affluent, structurally weak regions and then mops up all the labour - from jobless people on Hartz IV (drastically reduced benefits paid after 12 months unemployment) to older people on the cusp of pension age. A recent television documentary showed how Amazon has started hiring workers from crisis hit countries like Spain. As can be expected, these people are pleased to have found any work and the government Labour Office (job centre) not only facilitates recruitment, but pays towards the costs. The fact that most workers are employed on temporary contracts, some of which are extended over a period of more than two years, makes people feel very insecure. Some of the strikers reported that they had even heard of one day employment contracts.
This makes the decision to go on strike all the more remarkable, 97.6% of union members at Amazon voted to strike. They turned out to stand defiantly at the gates, all kitted out in the union’s typical strike gear: ver.di high-visibility jacket, whistle, flag and an umbrella.
Low pay is not the only thing on the list of workers’ grievances; Amazon staff also cite the disrespectful, harsh treatment meted out by management and poor working conditions. Kilometre-long aisles (stock pickers will walk 25 km on an average day), and the lack of proper air-conditioning, mean that workers often pass out on hot days. Then there’s the constant supervision: anyone pausing for too long will be instructed via hand scanner to resume work. The long distances walked and time-consuming waits at the security checks all encroach on staff break times. Earlier this year Amazon had to sack HESS, a private security company whose name was an allusion to Adolf Hitler’s deputy, it used to “police” the hostels and hotels where its foreign workers lived after it was exposed on television how these “security personnel” harassed the migrant workers while dressed in Thor Steinar clothing associated with the German far right.
Additionally some other factors have dented Amazon’s reputation, not least the millions of subsidies that it has received from German taxpayers at the same as it was setting up a holding company in Luxemburg and paying tax at low rates in the Netherlands.
The “Amazons” are now demanding more respect and better working conditions from their employer. The first day of strike action was seen as a rehearsal for a full-scale strike which could last for months. The union ver.di is striving to build a base and force concessions from market leader Amazon, failure would set a bad precedent.
Translated by Sue Powell, Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales)