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Amazon: Fulfillment for whom?

The report that Amazon in Germany hired a security firm with possible neo-Nazi connections is less troubling than what the firm did.

After the story broke on German television, Amazon fired the security firm, Hensel European Security Services (HESS), which was hired to police the 5,000 temporary foreign workers at Amazon’s German warehouses. (Amazon calls its warehouses “fulfillment centers.”)

The [ARD television] 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.

Another worker called Maria said she was thrown out of the cramped chalet she shared with five others because she had dried her wet clothes on a wall heater. She said she was confronted by a muscular, tattooed security man and told to leave. The guards then shone car headlights at her in her chalet while she packed in an apparent attempt to intimidate her.
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ARD suggested that the name “HESS Security” was an allusion to Adolf Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess. It alleged that its director was a man, named only as Uwe L, who associated with football hooligans and convicted neo-Nazis who were known to police. The programme-makers, who booked in at one of the budget hotels where Amazon staff were housed, said they were arrested by HESS Security guards after being caught using cameras. They were ordered to hand over their film and, when they refused, were held for nearly an hour before police arrived and freed them. The film showed HESS guards scuffling with the camera crew and trying to cover their lenses.

ARD said Amazon’s temporary staff worked eight-hour shifts packing goods at the company’s logistics centres in Bad Hersfeld, Konstanz and Augsburg. Many walked up to 17 kilometres per shift and all those taken on could be fired at will. On arrival in Germany, most were told their pay had been cut to below the rate promised when they applied for jobs at Amazon. “They don’t see any way of complaining,” said Heiner Reimann, a spokesman for the United Services Union (Ver.di). “They are all too frightened of being sent home without a job.”

Would it be any more acceptable to have a kinder, gentler security service, dressed in faded jeans and tie-dyed peace-symbol t-shirts, policing the living quarters of the temporary workers?

Although conditions aren’t as bad for Amazon’s warehouse workers in the UK and the US, it’s not exactly a picnic for them either.

In 2008 The Sunday Times sent a journalist to work undercover at Amazon UK’s Bedfordshire warehouse.

The reporter found that the casual staff employed by the company over the Christmas period were made to work an overnight shift on a Saturday night, following a normal working week – effectively meaning that staff were working every day of the week.

Casuals were banned from taking sick leave, with workers being awarded a penalty point for taking a day off, even with a doctor’s sick note. Employees are fired after amassing six points.

The undercover reporter also found that staff were being set productivity quotas that even management described as “ridiculous”. One member of staff had to pack 140 Xbox consoles an hour to qualify for a bonus payment. Bonuses were only handed out if all the members of the team hit their targets.

Amazon, like many retailers, employs thousands of relatively cheap, temporary staff to help meet peak demand over the Christmas period. The Sunday Times reporter was paid £6.30 an hour for a day shift – just over 50p above the minimum wage – but staff had to pay £8.50 a day for bus travel to and from the out-of-town warehouse if they didn’t have their own transport.

In 2011 The Morning Call newspaper began looking into conditions at Amazon’s Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, warehouse.

Over the past two months, The Morning Call interviewed 20 current and former warehouse workers who showed pay stubs, tax forms or other proof of employment. They offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what it’s like to work in the Amazon warehouse, where temperatures soar on hot summer days, production rates are difficult to achieve and the permanent jobs sought by many temporary workers hired by an outside agency are tough to get.

Only one of the employees interviewed described it as a good place to work.

Workers said they were forced to endure brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain. Employees were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said. The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse. Such sights encouraged some workers to conceal pain and push through injury lest they get fired as well, workers said.

During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn’t quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time.

An emergency room doctor in June called federal regulators to report an “unsafe environment” after he treated several Amazon warehouse workers for heat-related problems. The doctor’s report was echoed by warehouse workers who also complained to regulators, including a security guard who reported seeing pregnant employees suffering in the heat.

(After the newspaper’s report, Amazon installed air conditioning at the warehouse.)

In a 2012 report on Amazon, The Seattle Times focused on conditions at the warehouse in Campbellsville, Kentucky.

“There would be phone conferences [with Amazon headquarters in Seattle], and all this screaming, about production numbers. That was always the problem; the production numbers weren’t high enough,” said a former safety manager with oversight of the warehouse who spoke on condition of anonymity. “This was just a brutal place to work.”

Former managers said the company created a work environment where employees who complained about conditions, including excessive heat, risked retaliation.

After nearly two years on the job, one former manager was troubled enough about conditions to write an email to an Amazon regional vice president. He says he detailed concerns about unreasonable expectations of workers during extremely hot days, how production rates were set and other issues.

A week later, the former manager says, he was accused of a minor rules infraction and given the choice of leaving the company or getting fired.

“I said that this makes no sense,” he recalled. “There were huge problems at Campbellsville, and I wanted them to do an investigation.” The tough tactics extended to the treatment of sick and injured workers, according to a former human-resources employee.

“They would have meetings on how we could get rid of people who were hurt. It was horrible,” she said. “I would try to find them [the workers] light-duty jobs that they could do, and they [managers] would say no. They wanted the workers to exhaust their time off so they could fire them.”

Jennifer Owens, who had worked at Campbellsville for more than a decade, said she lost her job last September after she returned to work from an approved medical leave for neck pain caused by an auto accident.

“They just came back and said, ‘You’re fired,’ ” Owens recalled. “I really didn’t say anything. It was like — God, I can’t lose my job. I got to have my health insurance.”

It should come as no surprise that Amazon strives to keep its workforce non-union, as The Seattle Times reported:

In Campbellsville, the mean wage for full-time workers — including incentive pay and stock options that vest after two years on the job — tops $14 an hour, according to an Amazon official. That is substantially higher than the mean hourly wage of less than $10 an hour for warehouse workers in south-central Kentucky. But it lags far behind the top tier of unionized workers in the area, who may make more than $20 per hour after four years on the job at a Kroger grocery warehouse, according to Kenny Lauersdorf with Teamsters Local 89.

Early on, Amazon took a hard line against unions. A high-profile organizing effort by the Communications Workers of America at an Amazon call center in Seattle ended in 2001, when the center was shut down and some 400 workers were laid off as part of a larger company restructuring. At the time, Bezos said union issues played no role in the decision.

Former employees at Amazon distribution centers say that workers are warned of the perils of unions. “We had a meeting once a year, and they would put the unions down and say that they would take money out of our checks,” said Owens, who worked at the Campbellsville plant.

Before the Seattle call center was shut down, Amazon launched a campaign against unionization at its call centers and warehouses, as The New York Times reported at the time.

A section on Amazon’s internal Web site gives supervisors antiunion material to pass on to employees, saying that unions mean strife and possible strikes and that while unions are certain to charge expensive dues, they cannot guarantee improved wages or benefits.

The Web site advises managers on warning signs that a union is trying to organize. Among the signs that Amazon notes are “hushed conversations when you approach which have not occurred before,” and “small group huddles breaking up in silence on the approach of the supervisor.”

Other warning signs, according to the site, are an increase in complaints, a decrease in quality of work, growing aggressiveness and dawdling in the lunchroom and restrooms.
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“Unions actively foster distrust toward supervisors,” the Web site says. “They also create an uncooperative attitude among associates by leading them to think they are `untouchable’ with a union.”

The Web site, which calls the company’s workers associates, adds: “Unions limit associate incentives. Merit increases are contrary to union philosophy.”

In 2011 The Herald of Scotland reported that a senior manager at Amazon UK’s Gourock warehouse failed to rule out “repercussions” for workers who joined a union.

Sandy Davidson, speaking to a meeting of “all hands” or employees at the warehouse a year ago, was asked directly if there would be consequences for those workers who join a union.

He replied. “I can’t say whether there would or wouldn’t be repercussions. Amazon prefers to consult with its employees through other means.”

It would be illegal for any employee to face repercussions for joining a union.

The company has faced similar challenges in England. It has successfully fought off demands for union recognition in its English warehouses. Staff were issued with “Vote No” T-shirts.

But hey: free shipping.

Am I alone in thinking that there is something Orwellian in calling a warehouse a “fulfillment center”? And in this slogan painted in giant letters on a fulfillment center wall:

I’ve never had the pleasure of working in a warehouse, but I would guess that the only fun it is possible to have while doing so would likely get you in trouble if your boss catches you. But yes, I suppose that Amazon’s warehouse workers– representing the future of disposable blue-collar employment in the US and the UK– are sort of making history.