the audit

Amazon’s German labor fiasco

A subcontractor employed neo-Nazi guards to patrol immigrant workers
February 18, 2013

The story of Amazon’s treatment of workers took a sensational turn last week when German public television revealed that temporary Amazon workers in Germany–most of them foreign, apparently–were watched over and intimidated by neo-Nazi “security guards” hired by a subcontractor.

I don’t speak German, alas, so here’s The Independent‘s report:

The film showed omnipresent guards from a company named HESS Security wearing black uniforms, boots and with military haircuts. They were employed to keep order at hostels and budget hotels where foreign workers stayed. “Many of the workers are afraid,” the programme-makers said.

The documentary provided photographic evidence showing that guards regularly searched the bedrooms and kitchens of foreign staff. “They tell us they are the police here,” a Spanish woman complained. Workers were allegedly frisked to check they had not walked away with breakfast rolls.

Merkel’s government has already weighed in, and it’s worth noting, as The New York Times does, that Germany is Amazon’s second-biggest market.

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We’ve seen problems with Amazon’s treatment of workers before, and how it leverages a temporary labor force to keep its permanent workers in check.

Recall Spencer Soper’s fine reporting for the Allentown Morning Call on Amazon’s labor practices in Pennsylvania:

The supply of temporary workers keeps Amazon’s warehouse fully staffed without the expense of a permanent workforce that expects raises and good benefits. Using temporary employees in general also helps reduce the prospect that employees will organize a union that pushes for better treatment because the employees are in constant flux, labor experts say. And Amazon limits its liability for workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance because most of the workers don’t work for Amazon, they work for the temp agency.

In that story, we learned that the company was running a sweatshop–literally–in the Lehigh Valley. The company memorably had ambulances stationed outside to ferry fallen workers to the hospital when they got overheated, and things were so bad an ER doctor reported the company to OSHA after he saw one too many overheated patients. Temperatures inside the warehouse rose to 110 degrees and security refused to open loading-bay doors for fear its employees would steal stuff.

And Amazon’s hometown Seattle Times took the company on with a series that included a report on how it fudged its OSHA numbers when workers got hurt.

Cut to Germany, where Amazon’s outsourced security raids immigrants’ rooms looking for stolen goods and “arrests” ARD’s journalists when it discovers them filming undercover—all while wearing Thor Steiner clothing that the far right nationalists favor.

The NYT quotes a union representative making a good point:

“We are talking about Polish workers who were kept in a holiday camp with a fence around it and were being watched by guards,” Mr. Reimann said in a telephone interview.

“We are in Germany,” he said. “We have a certain history to respect.”

And these jobs are difficult even under ideal conditions, like non-fascist-loving security guards and air conditioning. Read Mac McClelland’s undercover piece in Mother Jones on working in an Amazon-like warehouse and this recent FT story.

Before they can go home at the end of their eight-hour shift, or go to the canteen for their 30-minute break, they must walk through a set of airport-style security scanners to prove they are not stealing anything. They also walk past a life-sized cardboard image of a cheery blonde woman in an orange vest. “This is the best job I have ever had!” says a speech bubble near her head.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.