Welcome to the jungle – Working and struggling in Amazon warehouses
The following article is an extension of an article we have written for the third edition of our irregular west London worker’s newspaper, WorkersWildWest, out in early 2016.
It is the second part in a series about workers’ discontent at Amazon. The first part is here: https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2015/11/11/amazon-in-india-the-e-commerce-jungle-and-workers-reality/
2. Organisational model
3. The workforce (including footnotes to workers’ reports/voices)
5. Limits of the struggles so far
a) ’Voices’ from workers in different Amazon departments in Poznan, Poland
b) Interview with two workers at Amazon Brieselang, near Berlin
This year, it seemed that Amazon had some trouble hiring the whopping 19,000 Christmas temps it needed across the UK to deal with the seasonal rush. Temp agencies in our area of London town (Greenford) were offering a starting wage of up to £9 an hour (this was up from £7.50 last year; the current minimum wage typical in warehouses is £6.70), as well as promising a £250 ‘joining bonus’ for people who worked weekend shifts and £150 for those working weekday shifts at the Amazon in Milton Keynes and Hemel Hempstead. They were offering bus-shuttle services for the hour-long drive and payment of the commuting time on the bus. They were trying to fish in the big pool of migrant workers in our area, dangling the carrot of £500 per week (five 10-hour shifts plus paid travel time); in comparison, a regular 40-hour minimum wage job will get you just £250 a week.
By now, most of the hired Christmas temps will have been let go. There have been TV exposés about the stressful working conditions and cut-throat work culture but unions have been locked out and workers have, up till now, not made any visible stands against the bosses.
Some friends of ours started working and organising at the Amazon warehouse in Sady, near Poznan in Poland, which opened in 2014 – while others we know have been supporting Amazon workers on strike in Germany. We think Amazon workers in the UK can learn from workers’ experiences in both of these countries. Some workers and activists have already started to work together across national boundaries to coordinate their actions, knowing that if they don’t, management will play them off against each other. In April and September 2015, and in-between, striking workers in Germany met up with their fellow-workers in Poland who are organising through rank-and-file union, Workers’ Initiative (IP), to discuss their common situation. There is a short video about this meeting on labournet.tv .
If Amazon workers in the UK want to do something collectively and effectively, hooking up with their brothers and sisters abroad would be necessary in the long-run…To that end, we have proposed an Amazon newsletter for workers here as a way to share news and experiences . If anyone is interested in working with us to take this further, get in touch at email@example.com
2. Organisational model
Walmart, IKEA, Amazon, Apple … these companies are symbols of what the future has to offer. They are modern multi-billion profit companies whose business success is based on the fact that management is globally organised and can exploit workers wherever they find the most profitable conditions and play workers off against each other – especially workers from areas with high unemployment. What seems like ‘greed’ by multinational corporations is just the healthy expression of the general rules of the system we live in: reduce costs and wages, use technology to squeeze workers, and increase profits and/or share value.
Dollar, Dollar bill y’all!
Amazon employs over 180,000 permanent people in its offices and 173 warehouses around the world. Starting off as an internet book-selling business, Amazon has expanded into almost every commodity area of the personal consumer. It was floated on the stock market in 1997 and since then its turnover has gone up 420 times to $62 billion in 2012. In the UK the minimum starting rate for the 7,000 Amazon permanent staff is £7.20 per hour, rising to (on average) £8 after 2 years. Casual and seasonal staff earned £6.71 per hour last year but now it seems they are being forced to raise their wages and cast their hiring net further afield. We’ve seen adverts offering £8 an hour, which went up further, to £9, in the run-up to Christmas.
The local state stuffs Amazon with subsidies, hoping for new jobs. In Swansea the Welsh Assembly agreed to build a new road to the warehouse at a cost of £4.9 million. The nationalist government in Scotland bent over even further to get Amazon to locate two warehouses there. At least £3 million in grants has been handed out to create the Dunfermline warehouse, which is the biggest in the UK. A new M20 junction in Ashford in Kent is planned as important infrastructure for a new Amazon warehouse, and will cost between £60m to £90m.
Profits and speculation
The first quarterly profit recorded by Amazon only happened in July 2015. Up until then the company had only recorded losses. Large sums of Amazon’s total revenue is used to undercut competitors in the hope of a future monopoly position. At the profit announcement, shares surged and Bezos, Amazon’s founder, made $7 billion in 45 minutes. The $40 billion in shares that were bought that day shows the skew towards speculation as one of the driving forces of the economy.  Having said that, massive warehouses are being bought up in the need for actual and market expansion. Amazon are hoping to move into a full grocery delivery service and will need corresponding warehouse space closer to big cities in order to transport perishable, chilled items the next day. And to be truly global, they are spending billions on capturing market share in countries like India, where the barriers to entry are greater .
3. The workforce
Amazon, Amazon ueber alles…
In Germany Amazon ship in temporary workers from all over Europe. At the warehouse in Bad Hersfeld one employee said that 44 different nationalities were taken on in 2012’s Christmas season. Many of these workers were bussed in from crisis zones like Spain, Greece, Poland and Portugal. There was a scandal about a local security company with connections to neo-Nazi circles patrolling the hostels of the temporary workers, enforcing discipline.
…divide and rule
Amazon moves workers from here to there or, if more profitable, relocates entire warehouses, exploiting regional differences. There are now nine Amazon warehouses in Germany, eight of them have seen strikes for better conditions over the last couple of years. Amazon has now opened new warehouses in Poland and Czech Republic – solely to cater for the German market. Many goods are shipped from Germany, sorted and packaged across the border in Poland and sent back – quite a big detour and not very good for the environment!
Sending the goods back and forth makes no sense at all, but it does from a business point of view: the minimum wage in Czech Republic is 330 Euro per month – around a quarter of what workers earn in Germany.
Amazon has done a good job so far of locking out unions. In the UK, the GMB have been trying to get their foot in the door for some years now but so far, with no success. In 2001 at the Amazon in Milton Keynes, the Graphic Paper and Media Union (GPMU), which is now part of Unite, was defeated in a 2001 union representation ballot after Amazon ran an anti-union, dirty-tricks campaign. For example, they issued workers T-shirts with slogans such as “Tell the GPMU yesterday’s gone”, and “Vote NO”; they held interviews with each individual employee and had meetings with groups of workers asking why they needed a union and making sure they were aware of the company’s views on union membership; they victimised union members; they distributed a sample ballot paper to make it clear how employees should fill it in; they promoted some black and asian employees; they established canteen facilities; and increased the wage by 50p. The result being that there was a 90% turnout for the vote, with 80% voting against union representation. 
They have to constantly be on guard against their workforce coming together. This is being done through the usual ways e.g. union-busting, through having a mix of temporary and permanent contracts and various levels of shop floor hierarchy, as well as employing some ‘softer’ management techniques such as integrating some sections of workers (e.g. granting special breaks for Muslims, using gadgets for deaf people etc.), at the same time as atomising individuals (e.g. using language like, “underperformer”).
Amazon gobbles jobs
By use of new technologies (internet shopping, electronic monitoring of workers in warehouses, robots for picking items) and employing large numbers of people in huge warehouses, Amazon can undercut traditional retail and delivery companies. In this sense Amazon is not creating jobs, but reducing them, e.g. in the US 42,000 jobs are said to have been lost in the retail sector in 2012 due to Amazon’s ‘business success’. But jobs are not just lost due to closing retail shops. Postal delivery jobs are also at stake: Amazon UK is Royal Mail’s biggest customer, accounting for 6% of all parcels. When Amazon UK announced in early 2015 that they will use the infrastructure of the Connect Group to deliver parcels themselves, the Royal Mail share price went down the drain. Thousands of jobs at Royal Mail are at risk – jobs that are equally threatened by Royal Mail’s ‘internal’ automatisation drive in the sorting offices.
Slave to the rhythm
In a profit-system, higher productivity cuts jobs and turns the lives of those who have a job into a stressful hell. At Amazon toilet breaks are timed and monitored. Management uses a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ system: you get half a strike against your name if you’re one minute late for work. Three strikes and you’re sacked. Arm monitors with GPS tell the pickers what and where to pick and and count them down for each item to enforce the productivity norm. This squeezing of workers was and is necessary in line with Amazon’s long-term plans and loss-making interim period (which lasted 20 years!) But then they still have problems with their technologies: the Kiva picking robots are not as flexible as humans and still more expensive than cheap labour. Workers in Poland tell us that the conveyor belts clog up regularly. Meaning: they still need us!
We have some translations of more detailed workers’ reports in the appendix below.
The Amazon business model has an internal problem: if you bring thousands of workers close together in big warehouses, apply loads of work pressure and pay them peanuts, then it is only a question of time before trouble starts. If you work in a small bookshop you might hate your boss’s guts, but the rest of the world wouldn’t give a toss about it. If Amazon workers stopped working, the world would be in tears over delayed birthday presents and undelivered sex toys!
Power to (not pity for) the people
So it is pretty lame to portray the Amazon workers as poor victims and semi-robots – this is unfortunately what most of the established trade unions and campaigns do. Amazon does not pay less than other warehouses, working conditions are not so much worse than other warehouses – no need for pity! The difference is that given the size and concentration of Amazon warehouses, workers there have potentially more clout – they could create the initial power that many of us are lacking.
Recent struggles at Amazon show that this is not just wishful thinking.
In Germany, in the nine Amazon warehouses 9-10,000 workers are employed as permanents. 10,000 temps are hired during the Christmas season where they process millions of orders: in December 2013 for example, 4.6 million orders were processed across Germany in one day! They are paid between 9.75 Euro and 10.62 Euro, depending on location. The union’s main demand is for Amazon to recognise the nationally agreed wage agreement for the retail and mail sector. In Germany there is a system of nationalised collective bargaining that determines the basic wage for different sectors. The trade union wants Amazon to accept the collective contract that applies to the retail sector, which pays more than for those working in the logistics sector, which is what Amazon categorises their business as. The basic wage of the retail collective contract in Hesse is 12.96 Euro p/h (£9.43), while Amazon pays just 10.31 Euro (£7.50). While this is the main union demand, workers have voiced many other problems: temp contracts, too few breaks, work pressure. The discontent and the fact that workers feel overburdened also expresses itself in high rates of absenteeism of 20% and more.
In April/May 2013 a minority of permanent workers at two Amazon ‘fulfilment centres’ in Bad Hersfeld and Leipzig, organised through the large ver.di union, went on strike. The strike at Bar Hersfeld was the first ever strike in Amazon’s twenty year history. By December 2014 workers in six out of eight Amazon warehouses in Germany were on strike for more money. Since then, even more ‘fulfilment centres’ (what Amazon call their warehouses) have joined the dispute: in September 2015 a minority of permanent workers in 8 out of 9 fulfilment centres were on strike (in Bad Hersfeld, Leipzig, Rheinberg, Werne, Graben and Pforzheim and Amazon Prime Instant Video based in Elmshorn. Only Berlin Brieslang has yet to participate in the official union dispute.) Amazon warehouses do not all store the same items, which means that work cannot always be easily re-routed from a striking warehouse to a working one.
By October 2015 a total of 80 days were lost to strike action. In 2015 ver.di started to call for strike on shorter notice i.e. on the same day (which is only possible in some if the better organised fulfilment centres). Perhaps in part this was an attempt to get around one of Amazon’s tactics to re-locate ‘militant’ workers before a strike starts if they work in a potentially more important position, e.g. outbound; they are then shifted to picking, where they cause less trouble when on strike.
During a different (unofficial) dispute Amazon temp workers employed at the Berlin Brieselang warehouse organised protests. Only 35 temps out of 1,250 were offered permanent contracts after the peak season was over, even though Amazon had promised 1,000 permanent jobs when they opened the warehouse in 2013. At the time, only 285 had a permanent contract – most people were on one- or six-month contracts, earning 9.70 Euro (£7) p/h. But since July 2015 the majority of workers have been given permanent contracts because German labour law states that contracts can only be extended three times, or for two years. In general, these six months contracts remain a hurdle for workers’ confidence.
A rank-and-file report about smaller forms of resistance also states that workers have asked managers to address them with the formal ‘you’, there has been a boycott of individual conversations with managers and workers go in big groups instead.
Solidarity groups have formed to support the strikers, who have been invited to rallies on university campuses and supporters have came to picket-lines and temporarily blockaded the gates.
So far, Amazon has refused to enter into a wage agreement with the ver.di union. Officially Amazon have not conceded to the demands, but they have introduced a Christmas bonus of 440 Euro (although this is not guaranteed) and increased wages ‘voluntarily’. Workers have been given a 2.5% wage increase and Amazon has offered small wage increases to individual warehouses. This still falls far short of what the union is asking for – not to mention the other grievances of workers, which are not included in the collective wage agreement!
The union machine
In Pforzheim and Koblenz, management has repeatedly tried to sack the employees who were active in the union – colleagues who had tried to inform their co-workers about the strike by distributing leaflets inside the workplace. Union backing has meant these workers did not end up losing their jobs but the same cannot be said of temp workers in general who are involved in organising inside the warehouses, whose contracts are just not renewed. The union has not been able to stop this.
And at a ver.di conference about the Amazon struggle in Germany, they tellingly invited Solidarnosc people from Poland as the guest speakers, who have little direct roots at Amazon. Ver.di (and Solidarnosc) claim that international solidarity can only be organised within the framework of the uni global union (which is an international network of mainstream unions), which says very little about how to actually develop collectivity on the shop-floor with a minority union membership. 
Thanks to the friends from inside the Amazon warehouse in Poznan who told us the following:
In Autumn 2014, Amazon opened two warehouses, one in Sady, near Poznan and another in Wroclaw. Both are in west Poland, making it easier to transport goods for the German market. While at the moment they are used to put pressure on the Amazon workers in Germany, in the longer run they are part of Amazon’s global expansion strategy for markets in Eastern Europe. Inside the Sady warehouse there are between 2,000 and 3,000 workers, who when it opened, were paid the equivalent of around £1.80 an hour. This was the wage for those employed directly by Amazon as well as agency workers who make up just under 50% of the total workforce.
The warehouse near Poznan is one of Amazon’s largest logistics centres. In October 2014, just one month after they opened, the company stopped hiring workers directly and started using temp agencies. Before Christmas they had employed 3,000 temp workers, which went down to 2,000 after Christmas. The plant works non-stop, day and night (unless a machine breaks down!), standard full-time shifts are four, 10.5 hour days. The company provides buses, which bring workers from different cities and towns up to 50 miles away. Some of them have to spend more then 4 hours a day on a bus getting to work and back home again.
Winter of discontents
From the beginning, workers have had problems with wages not being fully paid and often delayed, as well as with a complicated system of bonuses. Wages are administered by a department in the Czech Republic and an external company in the south of Poland, so lots of data and accounting gets lost in-between all the offices. Despite the fact that problems with poorly calculated and delayed wages affect all workers, it was the temps who decided to raise the issue through the local press. (In Poland, unlike the UK, part of the media reports not only about the lousy conditions but also every worker action that has been taken.) Lot of articles were written about it, which opened up public debate about the terrible working conditions not only in Amazon but in workplaces in the whole area. One of the main issues was the role of temp agencies. Recently, activists also distributed a leaflet about temp agencies and there has been an action in front of Adecco after unclear wage payments.
Another problem that workers have are the low wages and high productivity targets. At Christmas time 2014, pickers distributed a leaflet amongst themselves raising these issues. In December the plant didn’t reach the productivity targets planned by bosses in Seattle – management blamed the workers. Workers under pressure by supervisors were putting parcels on the conveyor belt in the fastest way but incorrectly, which sometimes stopped the whole line. They also used to talk openly about better paid jobs, informing the management that they were applying there…
Bullying, work stress, job insecurity and the covering up of workplace accidents were also raised by workers as well as a scam with the payment of the productivity bonus,  which is an issue that crops up in the ‘fulfilment centres’ in Germany too; basically the ‘productivity bonus’ is only paid on the months when the basic wage is low because there is less work. However, during the last Christmas period (2014), when the employees would have had to work between 50 and 60 hours a week, they were denied the bonus because of lack of productivity. What was hidden was the fact that during this time, lots of temp workers were hired and their incorporation into the workforce lowered the productivity of the overall operation. The company therefore was actually making the workforce pay for these start-up problems. Permanent target stress was added: Amazon itself admits that the requirements were increased as soon as 90% of the employees had reached the previously set standards.
When the first round of agency workers’ contracts were close to expiry at the end of 2014, the atmosphere got tense. Temps wanted to know whether they were going to stay on after Christmas and on what terms and conditions. They didn’t get any information for a long time so anger amongst the workers grew and productivity decreased. Two weeks before Christmas, Amazon decided to sack the 100 agency temps with the lowest productivity. They employed new workers but on even shorter contracts. This inspired other employees to work even slower and take more breaks. On the day when agencies were supposed to renew contracts, many employees simply refused to accept them, or made such high demands that the agencies simply couldn’t accept them.
This Christmas (2015), Amazon’s plan had been to employ around 6,000 people during the Christmas period (2,000 permanent workers and 4,000 temps). By the time they should have finished recruitment, they were still looking for workers, in what looks like a similar situation to the one the Hemel Hempstead and Milton Keynes warehouses found themselves in.
Workers have to tackle many logistical problems and divisions in order to come together.
1. Workers from two main departments (Inbound and Outbound) don’t know each other, don’t see each other during breaks, they start and finish the job at different times. Intensity of the work in both departments is different; even if there is no work in one of them, the other one may be busy.
2. There is 1.5 hour break between the day and night shift so workers from both shifts don’t see each other. All employees work in teams, no matter what shift they have – dayshift or nightshift – they always work with the same people.
3. Workers are employed directly by Amazon or by one of 3 agencies. Working conditions, wages, working hours are the same for all workers. But core Amazon workers have unlimited contracts whereas temps get contracts for 1 – 3 months.
Although unemployment across Poland is pretty high, near Poznan where they built the warehouse it is only 4%. Maybe this is why workers there started organising themselves very soon after the place opened. Shortly before Christmas 2014 some workers independently approached Workers’ Initiative (IP)  – who, as it turns out, already had some people working inside the warehouse, although not openly – to set up a union. There are now 330 members, most of whom are permanents. A minority of agency workers also joined in with time (they obviously don’t just sign up in the first 2 weeks, and many quit, are sacked or made permanent as time goes on). But a recent report  said they now make up 25% of the union membership inside Amazon.
Once IP had a small membership inside Amazon, they formally presented the management a list of demands. Included in the workers’ package of demands is:
1. A wage increase to 16 zloty an hour minimum wage (although some people have questioned this figure, seeing it as rather arbitrary and too low, perhaps as a rather too ‘rational’ amount so that management takes them more seriously);
2. A seniority bonus of 10 per cent after 12 months, 15 per cent after 24 months;
3. To change the rules governing breaks (they don’t want the time it takes to walk to the canteen and back to be included in their break time – the warehouse is so big that by the time they walk there and back again, there is hardly any actual ‘break time’ left!);
4. Equal treatment (with, for example, workers in Germany and the UK) in relation to the allocation of company shares;
5. Yearly shift plans.
Negotiations started in June 2015. By November 2015 there had been three meetings with management, but they didn’t make any offers and refused all five of the union’s demands. There have been arbitration meetings without any result. Amazon aborted negotiations on 24th of November 2015. After arbitration the trade union has the right to call for a two-hour warning strike; Amazon management announced that a warning strike would be illegal. It is currently difficult to organise strike ballot – according to Polish law, workers of all three warehouses would have to take part, and Solidarnosc, representing workers in Wroclaw have said that they would not take part. 
The establishment of a trade union has allowed workers from both of the main departments to exchange information, as well as between the permanent and agency workers. However up until now the union hasn’t really been able to break through the divisions between those on the day and night shifts, one reason being that workers from both shifts never see each other. Workers organised in the union haven’t managed to win the pay rise they were demanding (although they did get a pay rise this year, more info below) or lower the performance targets. Turnover is high: up till now, hundreds of Amazons workers have resigned from work and around a quarter of agency workers have decided to not stick around for new contracts, which increases the difficulty in building some collective power inside the warehouse.
The management recognises the union to the extent that they have to under the law. In other words, Amazon abides by the statutory requirements as set out in trade union laws in Poland. So for example, union reps can take their legally prescribed facility time and aren’t just fired. But Amazon have said that they prefer to talk to workers directly and there is a question mark over whether they will resort to firings and open union-busting if workers gain more collective power inside the warehouse.
(Apart from the efforts of the IP union in Poznan there have also been other workers’ groups active around Amazon in Poland, e.g. the grassroots union ZSP supported temp workers to fight for outstanding wages . But Solidarnosc, the biggest union in Poland, while not having a presence in the Poznan Amazon, are the representing union in the two fulfilment centres in Wroclaw, with about 100 members. IP have recently distributed 1,000 leaflets at Amazon Wroclaw, which is their first big attempt at getting in touch with workers there.)
Acts of resistance
“They say that we should increase productivity by 20%! What do we get in exchange? Some manager on the top will get a nice bonus and we will get a donut.”
Discontent was obviously brewing pretty early on: in one week in May 2015, just half an year after it opened, 400 workers signed a petition against the imposition of higher targets. Leaflets are distributed to highlight issues that workers have raised e.g. there was one recently about Amazon Poznan managing to process 1 million items within 24 hours, a ‘record’, but one which the workers got nothing out of.
In July 2015 the state carried out an inspection at the Wroclaw warehouse, which confirmed most of the allegations that the workers had been making, which resulted in the labour minister calling the management to the Ministry for a meeting. To take the edge off mounting public criticism, on the same day Amazon announced a wage increase: 7% for the assembly line workers and 12.5% for the foremen. This translates to people on the basic salary getting an increase from 13 (£2.20) to 14 zloty (£2.36) and team leaders getting 18 zloty (£3) an hour. But even with the increase, workers in Poland are still only earning about a third of their counterparts in Germany. 
We can see that the threat of simultaneous acts of discontent at Amazon in Poland and Germany created pressure on management. In Poland it meant that workers did actually get a pay rise, although Amazon did not admit workers’ actions up until that point were the reason behind the announcement, nor was the rise as high as the employees in the IP were demanding. The union are, however, continuing to demand 16 zloty an hour in their labour dispute with the management.
Because the three Amazon warehouses in Poland (one near Poznan and two in Wroclaw) cater exclusively for the German market, when workers in Germany went on strike earlier this year (2014), management told workers in Poznan that they had to work overtime, 11 hours instead of 10 hours a day. They didn’t want to be scabs, and because some of them had already linked up with struggling workers in Germany in order to start developing some rank-and-file coordination, they refused to do the extra work being demanded of them. Dozens of workers took annual leave or worked slow at the end of June 2015.
All of these disputes and actions show that workers’ struggle against low pay for hard work is a ‘wider social issue’ again – that workers are powerful enough to sideline the usual media bullshit that only talks about the problems of the rich or of the poor as victims.
5. Limits of the struggles so far
…you’ll never walk alone?
As well as an expression of confidence and level of organisation within a company that is notorious for their union-busting (or integrating) practices, the strikes also reveal the divisions between workers. In Germany, only between 20-30% of employees are taking part in the strikes, mainly permanent workers who are in ver.di. Even amongst the permanents there are major fault lines: a ‘Pro Amazon’ group was formed of Amazon employees, which, by December 2013, had collected around 1,000 workers’ signatures against the strike. Organising the strikes during the Christmas season sounds like a good idea because of the peak-time and high volume, but if larger numbers of workers don’t come together, and especially if the large numbers of temps don’t get involved in the dispute, then you don’t have a leg to stand on.
Take the example of Amazon Leipzig. Out of 2,000 permanent workers only 500 are union members and out of them only 400 took part in the strike. At Christmas Amazon hired an additional 2,000 temps, most of them students. While local unemployed people would try to avoid working at Amazon – because they know that the work is short-term and crap – job centres from other towns sent people for Christmas jobs. They did not take part in the dispute – after all, “why should I become a union member if the job only lasts for a few weeks”? On top of that, as we already said, the contracts of the temps that are involved in union activity are not being renewed.
At an international meeting organised by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung and Die Linke in October 2015, the ver.di boss said, speaking of the Amazon disputes that, “this struggle cannot be won by strike alone”. This statement does not question why the strike is weak in the first place and why the attempts to attack Amazon’s reputation have not been able to compensate for the internal weaknesses of the strike. And whilst emphasising the need for campaigns to damage Amazon’s public image, some Amazon workers have raised doubts about this strategy: previous campaigns against Amazon that portray them as bad employers’, treating employees as precarious robots, actually had a negative impact with some workers identifying more with their company, because they had seen way worse working conditions before and didn’t like being shown as victims.
There has been a lot of hope on the left about ‘stopping the circulation of capital’ through the strategy of the blockade. Blockupy activists went to go and support striking Amazon workers at the warehouse in Bad Hersfeld, where they did manage to do short ‘blockades’ of lorries as they left the gates, which basically meant having conversations with truck drivers to inform them about the strike . While this was a good effort, a much more ‘robust’ action – with hundreds more workers and supporters – would be needed to enforce a more financially damaging effect so as to put even more pressure on management.
What to do? – No more border-line syndromes!
The example from Poznan shows that even under difficult circumstances – (e.g. the wages in Poland are low, there is no unemployment benefit) – workers can kick arse and force management to pay up! This begs the question, what are we, here in the UK, so afraid of?!
There are many ways to put pressure on a company like Amazon. Sometimes, particularly when we are in the position of a minority, disrupting the workflow collectively ‘on the job’ might be more effective than ‘striking’ outside while many people continue working and the union does not want to blockade the trucks ‘for legal reasons’. Temps have to get involved in struggles or start their own ones – whether they are union members or not!
We also can’t leave the creation of links between warehouse workers – in particular between workers of different countries – to a small circle of paid union officials. We have to find ways to organise that ourselves. To this end, as we have already briefly mentioned, there was an international meeting of Amazon workers from Germany (including some of those worker militants in the ver.di union) and Poland in April and again in September 2015. This has been the start of more coordinated efforts that are leaping over or side-stepping the big union bureaucracies. As a result, workers have been mobilising inside the warehouse in Poznan to make their colleagues aware that strikes are happening in Germany – they distributed leaflets to fellow workers, hung up photos of the strike and some wore ver.di t-shirts to work. They also wrote solidarity messages to the strikers in Germany that were read out at rallies and pickets. There are also future plans for international coordinated actions and meetings, as well as a call for an international collaboration of logistics workers by SI Cobas in Italy.  It would be great if Amazon workers in the UK were involved in some of this. Small steps will need to be taken to let them know what is brewing over the water…
Finally, we have to kill the company badge inside our head! We can see how, for example, the work of Amazon workers and of Royal mail workers is closely linked and how both Amazon and Royal Mail management forces us into their competition game. We have to relate to each other as fellow workers – who have to fight under similar conditions and need one another in future.
 Amazon pays 1.50 zloty (25 pence) bonus per hour during peak time only; that raises wages to 15.50 per hour (£2.60). IP are demanding 16 zloty per hour (£2.70) for the general minimum wage.
 Solidarnosc have responded by posting a declaration on 26th of november 2015, saying that they have doubts about the way IP are proceeding. They say they have not been invited to take part in the negotiations and at this point the threat of strikes is not a sensible solution. They raise the experiences of the IP strike at Chung Hong where people lost their jobs, saying organising for better conditions is a slow process and that we have to accept the law. They called for a protest meeting in front of Amazon Wroclaw on the 30th of November 2015.
 In comparison, in Bad Hersfeld in Germany workers get 10 Euro per day (£7.27) plus attendance bonus for November and December), teamleaders get 20 Euro per hour (£14.50), and managers get 40 Euro (£29)
a) ’Voices’ from workers in different Amazon departments in Poznan, Poland
b) Interview with two workers at Amazon Brieselang, near Berlin
*** ’Voices’ from workers in different Amazon departments in Poznan, Poland
Voices from ‘Receive’
I used to have a bakery, as a franchise contractor. Financially it did not work out, they screwed us over with the payments we had to make to the main company. At Amazon I am happy about the regular income and the permanent contract. It looks worse when it comes to the productivity norms – they are always on your head. In addition, I always work standing upright in one spot, which is tiring. At the beginning they said that everyone has to stand, even the managers, but then they issued chairs for some – this ain’t fair. I also don’t like how some of the supervisors and managers treat people: disrespectful and intimidating right from the start if people don’t meet the targets. Even if I work very fast I always get to hear that we aren’t meeting the target. I also dislike that they give some of the ‘Leaders’ – those preferred by management – less strenuous jobs, for example in the ‘Prep’ department in ‘Receive’.
The wages are too low. If they expect that we continuously raise productivity (for example the target in LP increased from 20 to 30 boxes per hour, some of them 30kg heavy), then wages should increase accordingly. Even to 15 Zloty per hour. I also never really know how much bonus I receive, at previous jobs I knew it even before the actual payment of the wage. There is no phone number of the employer or personnel department which could be called from outside, for example by the bank.
Voices from the ‘Dock’
Before Amazon I worked as a mechanic in a metal company. We did not have to work night-shifts, that was better. Before that I worked in logistics, where the wages were higher. This in particular has to change at Amazon. We should start with 1 Zloty more per hour and then systematically push the wages up. At my previous jobs we didn’t have social funds (obligatory welfare funds for workers in bigger companies), but at least we had a day off on Christmas, we were invited for dinner to a restaurant and got vouchers – at Amazon we got f**k all for Christmas. In future some Christmas vouchers would be good, some kind of support. Instead they cut our December bonus! During the last few months I realised how insecure the future is – people came and left again, no one knew who would stay and why. We are always facing up to this fear – we don’t get any messages saying that we do a good job and that our job is secure. Despite working hard they can say “thank you, there is the door” at any time. And the chaos concerning payments and bonuses. What do I like here? Most of all, the good colleagues in the ‘Dock’!
Voices from the ‘Pick’
I used to work as a cleaner in Berlin, I earned much more, but the commute to work was bad. This is why I looked for a job in Poznan. During recent months the main problem at Amazon is the irregular wage payments; each month you get a different wage. Even management could not explain it. After four days of work I am drained and have no energy for anything. Other people say that, too: Amazon finishes you off. This is why we need higher wages. In the end this is why we go to work, in order to earn money. Apart from that I have problems with the air-conditioning. My eyes go dry, but maybe that’s just how it is when you work in a warehouse?
Voices from the ‘Ship’
I worked different jobs before, in education, but also in factories. At Amazon things are neither better nor worse than in other jobs. Some people say that having a permanent contract or some bonuses are something great, but I see it as just the basics a worker should have. The employer is not charitable. If they pay for a canteen lunch or transport costs they have calculated it as part of the wage. They don’t give these things because they are kind, but because the regional labour market conditions forces them. You have to work hard for your 10 Zloty per hour. It is true, we only fold cardboard -boxes, but we know our rights. I don’t expect no gifts or shoulder-padding from the employer, but a dignified wage, punctual payments and transparent conditions. Not more. The employer should know that they will otherwise lose the qualified and experienced workers. I was angry about losing the December bonus. Amazon can afford to pay us more. In Germany they pay way more, so they could afford to pay us at least 14 Zloty after tax.
Voices from ‘Receive’
I worked at the H&M warehouse before, through an agency, sometimes three weeks without a day off. In terms of the contract the conditions at Amazon are much better. Even though the food at H&M was better, proper coffee, fresh rolls, desert, juices. I would change something about the food, I’d rather pay more and get a proper lunch, better quality. And we lose a lot of time just by walking to the canteen – that’s not right! What else? The lockers are too small. We have to fight for a social fund, according to the needs of the workers. I’m always running to the personnel department and I still don’t know if they have paid for my health insurance. I also don’t like that Amazon sends us on unpaid holiday if there is no work – they should pay us if they have problems with low volumes.
Voices from ‘Pack’
I studied for some years, my parents paid for my expenses, but their financial support and the small scholarship was too little to survive on. I worked in supermarkets before. I was less drained compared to now at Amazon. I normally worked less than 10 hours a day. The air was not so dry. Due to the dry air I developed problems with my eyes, they are irritated. I did not have to travel so far either. The monotony of work in ‘Pack’ bothers me. And the pathetic ways in which they regulate how each bit of work has to be done. What would I change? I am waiting for an increase of the basic wage for all! Because whatever work you do, in whatever department, everyone goes home shattered.
Voices from the ‘Sort’
By calculating the hours we work over three months they screw us over nicely. Although you work overtime for a whole month you won’t get more money if there is less work the following month. The employer should guarantee us at least 160 hours per month and give us the option to work overtime. Other people might need a part-time position, for example parents or students. There should also be a possibility to change your work station during the shift – not everyone can stand on one spot for ten hours at a stretch or, in the opposite case, run around for ten hours. I heard that Amazon workers in other countries get rebates if they shop at Amazon, or they get company shares. We don’t get anything like that. I don’t know why they treat us worse, although they make more money out of us. We don’t get seniority bonuses or extra-pay for skills either. I have heard about the strikes in Germany – we have to learn from them and prepare ourselves for all kinds of actions – that’s the only way to change things.
Voices from ‘Pack’
I don’t like the fact that Amazon continues to hire people through agencies. Amazon uses agencies that are responsible for supplying workers, but they don’t care about how they do on the job. They don’t notice their efforts to cooperate and to work hard. They don’t even manage to issue proper payments, there is always something wrong. The agencies put pressure on people by keeping them in insecure positions – will they extend my 1-month or 2-month contract?
Voices from the ‘Dock’
I worked at Megamarkt before, conditions there were similar – a big corporation like Amazon. I don’t like the long journeys to work, I sacrifice 13 to 14 hours per day to work. I work for an agency, they send me from one job in the warehouse to the other. Us agency workers are canon fodder. You never know what you will have to do next. They don’t want to send us to do training, because they think it would waste money and time. Though we have got a work contract, they don’t want to let us book holidays. They marked us as absent when we were not able to work during a technical failure – and kicked people out for it. The agencies don’t inform us about shit. We never get told about changing bus times or shift-plans. I want to get SMS texts or emails, so I know what’s happening. And I want the personnel department who answers the phone. When I had to go and see the doctor I realised that I am not health insured. I even phoned the Adecco agency office in Poznan, but they could not tell me anything. They referred me to the ‘Info-Phone’, but no one answered my call. The agencies will earn a lot from us, this is why they keep us on their books and at the same time repeat their promises that at some point we will get a permanent contract with Amazon. They dangle their carrots, so that we work faster.
Voices from ‘Pack’
I used to work for a market research company. The working-times were regular, Monday to Friday, 10 am till 5 pm, though sometimes I finished at 9 pm. All in all, things were much better there, apart from the workmates. The basic wage was the same, but at the research company they paid well if you would work extra from home. The most difficult thing is getting up at 4 am in the morning, or 3:30 am on a Sunday. And the productivity targets are like in a work camp. They should make the payslips more transparent and more honest. And tell us about bonus payments in advance. And we want bigger lockers and a two-course lunch with desert.
*** Interview with two workers at Amazon Brieselang, near Berlin
How did you start working at Amazon?
A: I worked in construction before, but I had an accident and they made me redundant. At the job centre they told me to start working at Amazon. I read about conditions at Amazon before on the internet and from friends who work in a nearby warehouse. I was also interested to see if conditions are actually that hard.
B: I started working after my bachelors degree, after my studies. It was my first real job. I thought I would only do it for a while, also because it is 65km from where I live. This is now one and a half years ago. I always told myself: “These are the last six months, these are the last three months…” but then the struggle started and now I want to improve conditions here. I guess I have other job opportunities outside of Amazon, but a lot of my workmates have little other choices. So I want to help things get better here, even if my temporary contract runs out.
What were your first impressions when you started working here?
A: We all started new in this warehouse, they call it a ‘fulfilment centre’. Only a few people were shifted over from the Leipzig warehouse to get things running, they had more experience. They trained us. The first impression was: this place is huge! Having worked on construction sites before I thought that this is more like a nursery, in the sense that they emphasise safety a lot: you have to wear safety boots, high-vis, use the handrails, don’t take personal belongings down to the shop-floor and so on. You are supposed to walk on the designated footpath. They call it ‘standard work’; everyone is supposed to work in a similar fashion. It is quite militaristic, in a sense. They actually look for ex-army men when hiring supervisory staff. They tell you with floor-signs where to go. For me the easiest way to remember were the black signs to the smoking area…
Initially the pressure was not that high, because the whole warehouse operation had just started and the majority of people had to get used to things. But after four weeks or so – I worked in outbound at the time – it became clear that it’s about targets, about achieving numbers. More and more people were hired and I was supposed to train them. That was rather weird for me. They just called us to room 175 or something and when we arrived there they said: “Oh, great that you have volunteered to become a ‘co-worker’ [trainer]”, though actually we had been informed about fuck all. Basically they said: “Keep on doing your job, keep smiling and show the new ones how to work”. Then rumours started to spread: “Why have these guys been chosen to become ‘co-workers?’ Does that mean that they will get a permanent contract?” In this way the first division between the first batch of workers was created. Actually they haven’t given permanent contracts to all the ‘co-workers’. I guess I only got one because I hadn’t taken any sick leave and sometimes came in for extra shifts.
B: For me the first impressions were similar. Everything is quite standardised, no space for doing things in a different way. The only thing that varies is the productivity rate. This is what you identify yourself with. Regarding safety, it is a quite perverted system, because you mainly try to avoid accidents because you would lose your bonuses when you are off sick. Which means that if you cut your hand at a trolley you might not take time off to let it heal – because you would lose your bonus payments.
The big boost came before Christmas. They hired so many people. The managers could only relate to you as numbers, but they nevertheless managed to get specific information through to you. They don’t know who you are, but they always know where you are, because of the hand scanners.
A: They basically know at which alley and in front of which shelve you’re standing. It is sometimes scary, when a manager turns up and says “Hello. You are supposed to come over to xyz…” and you think, “How the fuck did he find me in this huge place, with so many other guys around?!”
B: Yeah, managers sometimes came up to me and said, “Hey, take over the trolley of this guy, you’ll find them in alley x…”, I had a look at their computer screen and they could see where this guy was and for how long they had been inactive.
So they analyse the individual productivity rate?
B: I don’t know for how long they store the information, but they bring productivity rates up in the individual feedbacks. The targets are hard, in particular after they increased the working day from 8 to 9 hours…
A: And fairly soon they increased the working week from 5 to 6 days, as well…
So you worked 52.5 hours a week during the pre-Christmas period 2013?
B: Yes, and they sacked a massive load of people on the 23rd of December, one day before Christmas. That was harsh. You got a message on your scanner “Come to point xy”, there management just took your company ID and out you were… In our department they sacked people that way, in groups of five to ten folks…
A: It was different in our department. They first let us work for some hours and then called us to stand in a line. They the said, “You over there, you and you, come with us”, and we saw that guys from management and security gave them their ’employee box’ – a box to store personal belongings – and they basically led them out of the warehouse. That was it. The rest of us just stood there, but no one told us that this was some kind of decision regarding our employment future. It was weird. In 2013 we got at least another one-year contract, in 2014 they only gave people half a year extensions…
B: And then they started ‘training’ people for other jobs. You were supposed to write down in a list what kind of other jobs you would like to learn, but in the end they just trained the pickers how to pack and the packers how to pick. Only a few chosen individuals were allowed to learn other stuff. It was clear that in order to guarantee that the commodities are always flowing they sometimes need more pickers, sometimes more people in pack, so they started moving people back and forth…
A: Yeah, our official job description is ‘warehouse operator’, which basically means that you have to do any job in the warehouse in which you have been trained. They can send you from outbound to pick, to ‘store’ or ‘receive’, you basically have no say in it.
B: Initially you had two weeks training for each new position, they have reduced that time now. The guys who came over into ‘inbound’ recently had only a week to learn the job…
What about operating machines? Do you do that?
A: I am a machine operator. I operate the ‘Slam’. We have six main conveyor belt lines… The packers pack their stuff and throw the boxes onto a smaller ‘packing-belt’, which transport them to the ‘Slam’. The ‘Slam’ is a central computer, which produces and attaches labels to the boxes. The computer checks if the right article for the right client is in the right box. This works by weighing the boxes. From there the boxes are put onto a main conveyor belt – as I said, we have six of them. These main belts supply the boxes straight to the trucks, automatically sorted, according to different distribution centres. Some boxes are diverted towards a kind of slide – if the labelling was wrong. They are then labelled manually…
The productivity target plays a big role. How is it established?
B: Every week they tell each group about their achieved productivity. Management then adds a 5% ‘sportive incentive’, which then forms your target for the following week. Obviously this has a limit…
A: They tell us about the productivity rate on boards. They say how many single items have been picked, how many multi-items and how many transhipments. Transhipments means that a client might have ordered two items that are stored in two different Amazon warehouses. Instead of sending two parcels to the client, we send our item to the other Amazon warehouse, and from there they send a single parcel. This is supposed to be cheaper.
B: A lot of transhipments are also about equalising out stock between different warehouses. We pass a lot of items on from the bigger Amazon warehouses in Germany to the Amazon warehouses in Poland. Most of our transhipments are to Poland.
Does your scanner count you down for each item, to show you if you are in target time? I have heard something about this from the UK…
A: Nah, they have got rid of this type of scanner. They used to have them…
B: Yeah, that was a 20 or 30 second timer. Management said this is just in order to give you a ‘rough idea of how many picks to achieve’, but it was obviously a way to put pressure on people. I don’t know for how long these scanners were around, but they don’t exist in any of the warehouses anymore…
A: Management themselves don’t really know how the productivity rate is established. I asked a manager and he said that he compares the current numbers with the numbers from the previous year… But this is arbitrary. In the ‘Pick’-department things depend on how many orders come in and how many workers are present. If there are many orders and few workers then the distance between each item to pick decreases – then you manage to pick a lot. In the opposite case you won’t manage to achieve your target, because you run around too much to collect your stuff. But this is not in our hands – how many orders come in, how many people are off sick etc. I’ve noticed the difference between last year (2014) and this year. Last year they had way more people in the warehouse and because there was not enough work, people were sent home early. Unpaid, but ‘voluntarily’ – everything is ‘voluntary’ at Amazon. The works council [formal representative body of the employees] has managed to do something about this: now at least managers and supervisors are supposed to ask you only once if you want to go home ‘voluntarily’.
B: But it is still a form of putting pressure on you. As long as your contract is temporary you will more likely agree to stay longer or go earlier, according to their needs.
A: The other problem is that even if you go earlier, there might be no bus going and you can walk 40 min to the next station…
B: The buses are a big problem. Amazon hired loads of people, but did not provide transportation. They might pay some subsidies to the public transport corporation, we don’t know. The fact is that we went with 150 people in a bus, which is supposed to carry 100 people max.
Is it possible to cheat the system and to work slower while the productivity rate still looks good?
A: It is difficult to do that. What you can do, you can ‘push’ orders – but they don’t like that too much. It means that you see your next order on the scanner and if you see that it is in a far-away part of the warehouse, you can then press a button and the computer will allocate you a different order. The hope is that this order will be closer to your current location. It’s a bit like Russian Roulette.
The other thing you can do is not to fill in the ‘missing item forms’, and save time in this way. We have to press a combination on the scanner if we can’t pick an item because it is not in stock. In addition we are supposed to fill in a paper form and hand it over to a certain team, which double-checks. The problem is that this might result in a different worker being given a blocking for having made a mistake. There is a point-system of mistakes: if the ‘storer’ notices a mistake, then the ‘receiver’ – the guy who works before him in the chain – gets in trouble. If the ‘picker’ finds a mistake, then the ‘storer’ is in trouble. If the ‘packer’ sees an error, then the ‘picker’ is fucked, and if the client is unhappy, then it must be the ‘packers’ fault…
B: Nah, it’s the ‘slammers’ fault, because we are the last in the chain – but we can blame the machine, because it let’s a lot of wrongly packed boxes through…
A: And making too many mistakes affects the bonus, which is composed of 12% of your pay…
B: When I worked in pick I just made sure that I picked around 100%. When I saw that I had achieved 150%, I would just work slow for 20 minutes. The manager told me off for it, because he saw that at the end of the day I always had around 97% or so, and he knew that I could have worked more…
So you can see your productivity rate on the scanner?
A: Not really, more an approximate hourly average. Which can cause problems, for example, if you had a big multiple pick and your percentage rockets, many people think hat they can work slower, but if the next pick involves a lot of walking around suddenly their productivity goes down brutally… It takes a bit of time to figure that out.
A: They have learned their stuff from the Christmas season 2013. Back then we worked six days a week and one hour overtime each day. So the late shift worked till 00:30am on Sunday – for which they had to pay Sunday bonus. In 2014 we only worked till 23:59 on Saturdays…
How does the bonus system work? You get 12% bonus on top of your hourly wage?
B: Nah, we get monthly pay, out of which 12% is bonus, according to productivity, quality and safety standards. If there are accidents, the bonus drops to zero. There is a bronze, silver or gold classification of the productivity – they decide. Quality is calculated according to how many wrong items we send out. They decide each month how the bonus is calculated.
So you get a basic wage of 1630 Euro gross and the bonus is on top of that?
A: Yip. But the bonus is calculated on a team basis, not based on individual productivity. They give you an individual bollocking in the feedback sessions, but the bonus is meant to encourage some kind of team pressure. If you have an accident then your team won’t get the bonus.
B: They don’t tell you the name of the person who had the accident, but everyone knows anyway.
A: So yes, the management wants us to ‘take care of each other’. Last year during the Christmas period a guy collapsed at the packing-line, so they said ‘make sure that the guy working next to you does not collapse, as well’ and stuff…
B: I work in the ‘Ship’, we don’t have productivity rates, but when I work in ‘Pack’ I help colleagues with heavy articles. For heavy stuff you have to get cartons ready, if you pack a CD you only need to put it in a case – so you are much faster, but items counts as item, disregarding weight. But not many colleagues do this, in particular those on temporary contracts feel the pressure to just work fast, they take the easiest work and hope for an advantage…
A: It is somehow a question of solidarity. You could say that the guys in pack on a permanent contract should take the heavier stuff…
How is the cooperation and atmosphere between workers?
B: People are generally friendly to each other, but you have cases of competition for certain jobs or items, as described. You can have an advantage if you get certain multi-picks, for example.
How is the workforce composed, in terms of age or gender?
B: Fairly mixed, though more men than women. I would guess 65% male, 35% female…
A: Age-wise very mixed, from 20 years old to people approaching retirement… But yes, the average will be between 27 and 32, or so…
B: Most of the workers are German. There is a relatively small group of Turkish guys and a slightly bigger group of workers from Poland, may be 25 people or so. And a dozen guys from Spain…
A: People have all kinds of qualifications. People have worked in construction, in retail. There is a guy from Poland who worked here as a teacher, but he earns more here. There are only a few jobs in Berlin and Brandenburg, so all kinds of people apply. Even a dentist. Many people who had their own business and who went bankrupt and who now need a job in order to get back into the social security system.
Do these different backgrounds of people result in segmentation of any form?
A: No, people sit in the same boat. They take breaks together and stuff. It’s not that the builders sit on one side and the ex-students on the other…
What happens if a machine stops or the technology fucks up?
B: There’s a maintenance team. At some point the conveyor belts and the ‘Slam’ stopped working and we had to do it all manually. The whole workforce of the ‘Ship’ then comes to the packing area, they open extra stations and people scan and sort manually.
Do these technical faults cause chaos or do things proceed in a certain order?
B: There is no big chaos. I mainly stand at the ‘Slam’, where I have a SCADA-screen and I can see the process in the whole department. If I see a technical problem I can call the maintenance department. No big chaos, just stress.
Do you have to work with people from other companies at work?
B: With workers from UPS, DHL and Hermes – delivery companies. According to different delivery services, for example ‘same day delivery’, Amazon uses different parcel delivery companies. They take the stuff and bring it to their different distribution centres.
What kind of stuff do you send out?
B: Everything up to 15 kilos and no food items. Apart from that everything which Amazon has on offer, though only a few clothes. We deliver stuff for the region of Berlin and up to Hamburg if it is an express order.
A: Or same-day delivery. People who order same-day are so-called ‘prime clients’. They have to pay extra for that, therefore Amazon gives them priority over other clients. Amazon uses certain filters, which make sure that the prime clients get their stuff first. If there is a problem with the volume, then they have to postpone the delivery for ‘normal clients’; for us it means that we have extra stress, because our picking is re-routed and we have to walk around more. They tell us and apologise for it during the briefings at the beginning of the shift and after the break: “Sorry, guys, we had to use the filter, blablah…”
Do you know where the stuff that you pick and pack comes from?
B: Nope, there is no info on the items.
A: We can just see if items belong to so-called third-party users, meaning, companies which use Amazon for the delivery. We don’t get our 10% discount on these items, because they don’t belong to Amazon. Our discount is limited to purchases of an annual maximum of 1000 Euro.
How do the goods arrive at your warehouse? In shipping containers?
B: I don’t know how they arrive, but they leave in normal truck trailers, which are parked everywhere.
A: I also don’t know for sure. I don’t think they arrive in shipping containers.
Can you talk to the truck drivers?
B: Only the guys who work outside in the yard have contact with them. There are many drivers from Poland. There is a yard building, where drivers can drink coffee, I guess some of the ‘Ship’-workers will have contact with them there.
Do you think your work is socially useful?
B: I think Amazon is superfluous. I don’t order much stuff online, I prefer seeing things first, in a shop. I don’t see Amazon as socially useful. It is only useful in a capitalist sense.
A: For me it is difficult. I don’t think that the stuff is actually cheap anymore. You get it fast, but you get it cheaper in the shops. The problem is more social: does anyone value the work of anyone else anymore? People just order their stuff and don’t think about the workers behind it. People don’t do things together.
B: I would say the average Amazon worker is not the average Amazon client. Whoever orders their toilet paper from Amazon either has too much money or too little time…
How is your work seen by other people?
B: I don’t like telling other people that I work at Amazon. People think that Amazon is a bad employer, there has been a lot of media attention about it. Those pro-Amazon workers are basically against Ver.di (the trade union). The works council often comes around with these survey questions: would you recommend working at Amazon to your friends and family? Definitely not!
A: I don’t think that Amazon actually wants to keep people for long. During these mass meetings (‘All Hands’) they sometimes announce if a worker has worked for Amazon for five years and I think: “Wow, this company has actually existed for quite a while now”. They want ‘flexible’ people, people who can work hard. They are not interested in teamwork, where older employees could still participate, even if they are not part of the Olympic Team. The main thing is that you find someone to have a good laugh with, on a Saturday late shift, when everyone just wants to be somewhere else.
When you started working at Amazon you already knew about the strikes at the other Amazon warehouses in Germany. How did you find each other?
B: I got to know R., a Spanish bloke. I saw that he had political experiences and we started talking about the conditions in the warehouse. I knew that he was on the ver.di list of representatives. Slowly we built a little circle, and I got to know A. through the works council.
A: In my case, I got my permanent contract at the end of 2013 and thought that now I can ‘take care of my co-workers’. They used to have what they called an ’employee’ forum’, some sort of representative body, but I was not to happy with that. Most of the guys active in this forum had come over from the Leipzig warehouse and had been given permanent contracts earlier than others – so it was not based on equality or something. For me it was clear: if these guys now also enter the works council, then we can forget about things. They boasted that they had set up an employees’ football team. We work so much here, who can actually do sports afterwards?! They had no other rights, I know, but in the end they were good for the employer. They never wanted to be part of the guys who work hard, they always wanted special positions – there were also a lot of supervisors amongst them.
My personal opinion is that Amazon had trouble getting extra-Sundays granted by the regional administration because Amazon had no works council. Amazon asked for four Sundays in 2013, but the regional administration granted only two. So Amazon management thought that they need a works council in order to get the Sundays and that if they get these guys from the ’employees’ forum’ elected into a works council, then they would have the majority and no trouble. So I thought that we should get active now and prevent this. I was a ‘co-worker’ (trainer) myself, a lot of other workers knew me. So R. and I set up a list for the works council elections, not as ver.di, because management had warned so much about having a union in the warehouse. We just called the list ‘We’, because they talk so much about the ‘We’, teamwork and all. We got two people into the works council and then clearly said that we are with the trade union. So we got in touch with the trade union activists of other Amazon warehouses. This was a completely new thing for me. They described how they organised the strikes. In early 2015 we became more active, also because Amazon gave permanent contracts to only 36 workers, and only gave six-months or one-month contracts to the majority. We circulated a newspaper about this. The activist meetings happen twice a year. This is where we also have to step on the toes of ver.di, because they move rather too slowly.