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Amazon ‘used neo-Nazi guards to keep immigrant workforce under control’ in Germany

19 February 2013

From The Independent:

Amazon is at the centre of a deepening scandal in Germany as the online shopping giant faced claims that it employed security guards with neo-Nazi connections to intimidate its foreign workers.

Germany’s ARD television channel made the allegations in a documentary about Amazon’s treatment of more than 5,000 temporary staff from across Europe to work at its German packing and distribution centres.

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.

. . . .

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.”

Link to the rest at The Independent and thanks to G.P. for the tip.

PG can’t remember where The Independent stands in the UK hierarchy of newspaper credibility. If German visitors can provide some context about ARD, that would also be helpful.

In the United States, various labor unions generate a lot of anti-Amazon publicity in their attempts to organize Amazon warehouse workers. To PG’s knowledge, no union has been successful in organizing any warehouse. The union spokesman source in the article raised the possibility of union involvement in the Independent’s story in PG’s mind.

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32 Comments to “Amazon ‘used neo-Nazi guards to keep immigrant workforce under control’ in Germany”

  1. Even in the US companies engage in union busting. Hiring neo-Nazis seems a bit over the top, though. Although, honestly, so did the Pinkertons, even for that era.

  2. Jeff Bezos–making heads explode worldwide.

  3. The story was flagged at The Digital Reader blog over the weekend. Amazon denied knowing who their local contractor had hired for security and had them fired.

    http://www.the-digital-reader.com/2013/02/18/amazon-fires-german-security-firm-accused-of-mistreating-workers/

    Union influence?
    Maybe but the traditional british media has over the last few months been really offennded that Amazon sells its pbooks and ebooks out of Luxembourg and thus pays less vigorish than other UK players.
    They also aren’t happy that the Kindle has an 80-90% share of the ereader market. They even blame *them* for Sony’s scorched-earth 20p ebook promos.
    (shrug)
    These days if they don’t try to dig up dirt on you, you’re probably not as successful as you could be. (C.f. Apple)

    • The Independent is a respected British journal reporting a news story.

      The British media is diverse and does not collectively take offence at anything a foreign company does within the UK or elsewhere, nor is the British media collectively upset at whatever market share the Kindle may or may not have.

      Reporting widespread concern at Amazon’s approach to paying taxes does not mean the media is offended. It’s called reporting the news.

      In this latest instance the report refers to a German documentary about events in Germany. Again, it’s called reporting the news.

      Shooting the messenger and all their fellows just because the message isn’t one you like may make you feel better, but lacks a certain objectivity.

      • Thanks for the clarification, Mark. Several months ago, in response to a posting I made from a British paper, someone provided a comment that included a hierarchy of journalistic reliability for various newspapers.

      • If there is one thing the internet age has made clear is that there is no such thing as unbiased media. They *all* have an agenda of one kind of another and the more sensational the report, the more skeptical you need to be.
        No one is above reproach, much less beyond question.

  4. You were asking about where The Independent stands in the British newspaper hierarchy.It’s an independently owned, credible broadsheet and the current owner is Alexander Lebedev.

    It certainly hasn’t been tainted by the Leveson enquiry into
    phone hacking or of bribing public officials for stories – unlike a number of the Murdoch owned newspapers.

    • Lebedev? The former KGB spy who worked in London with the first directorate? Are we sure this paper has no agenda?
      Lebedev was, primarily, specialized in economics during his KGB and FSB years. Methinks we are seeing a little of the old cold war bump and grind here…
      It’s entirely possible that the allegations are true, but i’d bet Mr. Lebedev felt a little nostalgic as this went to press. Back in the old days, they could’nt have gotten away with making this kind of stuff up. Now that everybody is ‘friendly’, he gets no end of great stories that would have been so useful, decades ago…

      • As one of the richest men in the world I doubt Lebedev has much time for anti-capitalist Cold War theatrics.

        And I certainly doubt he has any time to take a personal interest in the news stories covered by the newspaper. Editor Chris Blackhurst is one of the UK’s most respected journalists and would not tolerate any interference in editorial policy.

        The Independent didn’t create this story. It is reporting a story that was already in the news and making waves in a neighbouring European country.

  5. As a bit of reality on the US side in a distribution center…

    Security is always present. Still can’t believe the one kid that tried to smuggle a laptop out in his trousers. Yeah, that was going to work.

    Worked 10 hours a day, 4 days a week. Unless orders started coming in crazy. Then it turned into 50 hours a week by adding one more day.

    At-will working (I believe that’s what it is called). Here in the US this can be different from state to state. Such as Arizona, where they can fire/ lay you off for any reason at any time. They don’t have to say why. Companies love this for obvious reasons and are happy to set up shop in these states to take advantage of it. Employees hate it, for obvious reasons, not the least that you have absolutely no minimal job security or will even know why you don’t have a job one day. This is reality for millions of US workers all across the US in all sectors of business.

    Average walking on a slow day: 6.5 to 7.5 miles. Average walking on a medium day: 12-13 miles. Picking orders? That jumps to a spread of 12 to 20 miles, and one person I knew did 22 miles one day during the holiday season. It’s a great way to get in shape. :P

    Meanwhile, the pay was what was offered, and they paid promptly. As for being in the middle of a machine with you as an insignificant cog? Oh yeah, but you went into it knowing that. Amazon has its way of doing things and you do it their way. It seems to be working for them.

    • I am not commenting on the original article (since I don’t know all the details) but I have to agree with your response. I live/work in an ‘at-will’ state. The fear of losing your job, feeling like ‘a cog in a machine’ and all the walking sounds like my typical day.

      (Edited to add: Oh yeah, the mandatory overtime rings a bell too. )

  6. Frances Silversmith

    ARD is one of the two government-owned news services in Germany. It’s credibility is a given.

    And they did do the report The Independent refered to. Amazon Germany has since fired the security firm and taken steps to improve the living conditions of their foreign workers. They claim to have had no knowledge of said conditions.

    The claim of neo-Nazi connections is being investigated by the German police. It seems two of the security guards may have been in contact with the German neo-Nazi scene.

    • Thanks for the info, Frances.

    • You know, first the rerun of the Big Bang Theory where Sheldon wears the French maid costume, and then “a government-owned news service’s credibility is a given.”

      My cup, it runneth over.

      • I had the same reaction. Government ownership of a news source automatically makes me question it’s reliability. Pravda, anyone?

        • Government “ownership” does not automatically equate to Government control.

          The BBC is constantly at odds with the government of the day.

          • I understand that a government-owned news source _can_ be independent of that government–as the CBC here appears to be–but it remains an additional reason to question reliability, not to assume it.

            • If there is a way to make a person independent of that which he owes the roof over his head, the clothes on his back, and the bread in his children’s mouths, I would like to know what it is. I have yet to see the thing done convincingly.

          • Actually, the ARD is not government owned. It’s a public channel, financed via the license fee. Politicians and parties have some influence via the broadcasting council, but they don’t control the ARD.

  7. As Francis said, the ARD is indeed one of the two big public TV channels, financed via a license fee similar to the BBC in the UK. However, the ARD is a conglomerate of several smaller public regional broadcaster, so any ARD program is only as good as the company that produced it.

    The following is cut and pasted from a comment made elsewhere, because I’m getting tired of reposting this over and over again.

    First of all, here is the link to the actual documentary on German TV:

    http://www.ardmediathek.de/das-erste/reportage-dokumentation/ausgeliefert-leiharbeiter-bei-amazon?documentId=13402260

    Now I haven’t seen this particular documentary, but I have seen others in the same series (they did one about Apple and one about supermarket chains among others) and any good points they make are drowned out by screechy hyperbole. They are inconsistent, too, e.g. the same run-of-the-mill supermarket chain is portrayed as a snooty upmarket chain out to scam customers in one documentary and accused of peddling tainted products in search of rockbottom prices in the next. So in short, I wouldn’t take those documentaries too seriously. This is a pity because the ARD used to make good documentaries, but the quality of their information programming has recently gone downhill, probably in search of ratings.

    There probably is some truth to the “Neo Nazi” security, if only because private security firms tend to employ scary people in general (though mostly its mafia type people). And Amazon is far from the only company to use private security. Besides, the core issue in the documentary are not the Neo Nazis (the Independent cherry picked this bit, because British papers, even good ones like the Independent, just love bashing Germans about anything that smells like a Nazi) but the exploitation of temp workers. This is a real problem in many companies in Germany and was caused by the social policies of the Schröder government (which was supposed to be socialdemocratic), which was desperate to lower unemployment numbers by loosening the regulations for temp work, while keeping protections for the already employed (it is very difficult to fire workers in Germany, particularly if they are older) intact to satisfy the unions. Since full time employees are difficult to fire and temps were suddenly plentiful and barely get any protection at all, lots of companies stopped hiring full time workers and started hiring temps. As a result, this created a division between full time employees, often older, with lots of benefits and temps with very few benefits and job security and often abysmally low pay for the same work. Plus, Germany has no minimum wage, because much of the conservative party and the entire liberal (in the European sense, i.e. libertarian in the US sense) party oppose this. Amazon takes advantage of the temp system, as do many other companies.

    As for migratory workers from poorer EU countries being housed in less than ideal conditions, crowded dwellings, etc…, this has been a problem for years in the agrarian sector. For example, during asparagus season hundreds of Polish and now Romanian and Bulgarian (because the Poles have become to expensive) are carted into Germany to do the very strenous work of harvesting asparagus. They live in huge dorms in farm villages literally in the middle of nowhere. Yet I have never seen anybody call for boycotting asparagus and indeed people get very angry when you as much as mention the fact. But when Amazon does the very same thing that asparagus farmers have been doing for decades, it suddenly sparks a tell-all documentary, official investigations and complaints by the very politicians who oppose minimum wages and job protection for temp workers.

    There have been some concerns that Germans increasingly shop online and that they don’t shop at the established mail order companies, most of which are bankrupt by now (probably because they peddled low quality crap for decades and most people of my generation have learned to associate the old catalog retailers with trash) but at new upstart companies, some of which are even American. Indeed, the whole impetus behind this documentary series seems to be “young people today are not buying the things their parents did.” Hence also the dig at Apple and the supposedly snooty upscale supermarket chains.

    In short, a weird mix of hyperbole, protectionism and genuine problems, which however were not caused by Amazon or any of the other companies featured in this series.

    Amazon has fired the security firm BTW.

    • “In short, a weird mix of hyperbole, protectionism and genuine problems, which however were not caused by Amazon or any of the other companies featured in this series.”

      That was my take on it, too. A generous touch of sensationalism with bad camera tactics on top of it all.

      This is one of the worst documentaries I’ve seen on ARD/ZDF in quite a while.

      The journalists make much of Amazon only having few employees with permanent working contracts. I’m a researcher part-time at the Uni Cologne (14 years+) and have never had a permanent contract (and will never have one). That’s not a problem, per se. But the temp companies have become so ubiquitous in all aspects of the service sector, it’s already a huge problem.

      ver.di is responsible for all aspects of public service – including university workers (there’s a big demo today at the Uni) and I’m glad they are aggressive since they do win concessions that benefit all public service workers, even those of us who aren’t their primary concern.

      • That’s another issue, namely that permanent contracts are a thing of the past for many young Germans, including many with university educations and graduate degrees. I’m in a similar situation as you and have only ever had temporary contracts in the academic and education sector, which isn’t a problem in itself. However, the temp agencies are a problem.

        The Amazon documentary really was awful, but I have seen a lot of bad documentaries on ARD and ZDF of late. The supermarket documentary in the same series which tried to pass off Rewe and Edeka as snooty upscale supermarkets (apparently any store that’s not a discounter is snooty and upscale now) was a joke and there was a really dreadful and self-contradictory documentary about the switchover to renewable energy on ZDF last night. ARD and ZDF documentaries are often indistinguishable from the tabloidesque documentaries served up on the private channels these days.

        • Exactly. I saw that one, too, about the supermarkets and thought it was hilarious it was so bad. But I missed the one about the renewable energy.

          We get a lot of press coverage where I work because we monitor earthquakes in northern Rhineland and whenever anything happens and people die, they come like hornets. None of the staff gives interviews to the private channels anymore (we’ve been burned too often by them), but lately my colleague (who’s also the AD of our observatory and my husband) has been highly irritated with the public television interviews – it’s all become the same. They’re only out for sensationalism and not interested in knowing how things really work. It’s a shame, really.

  8. Regarding the union situation in Germany, there is no warehouse workers union in Germany. Instead, German warehouse workers, if organized, would be members of the service industry mega-union ver.Di. Now ver.Di is a pretty aggressive union by German standards, but so far their activities seem limited to bigger targets like the whole public service sector as well as airline and railway workers. I have no idea if ver.Di has it in for Amazon, but so far they haven’t shown any sign of it.

    Besides, German law protects unionized workers from employer reprisals. It is not possible in Germany to prevent your workers from unionizing or to fire them for joining a union, which several US companies like Walmart found out the hard way. Plus, German law allows the employees of all companies above a certain size to elect a so-called workers’ council, which can then negotiate with the employer on the employees’ behalf and address grievances. Amazon Germany has such a workers’ council, though it is apparently a fairly recent development.

    Besides, the problem here are not Amazon employees but a legion of temp workers, often from poorer EU countries, hired out to Amazon via temp agencies. Amazon is not the employers of those workers, the temp agency is. And hence the Amazon workers’ council has not a lot of interest in the concerns of those temp workers. Neither do the unions, because temps mostly aren’t unionized and paid rather poorly, so they don’t pay a whole lot of dues. The unions occasionally make a bit of noise on behalf of temp workers, but they’re far more interested in the concerns of the full time firmly employed workers who form their membership base.

    And as I mentioned in my other post, the situation of temp workers working for low pay with few benefits and little security is a huge problem in Germany. But it was politically created and Amazon is far from the only company to take advantage of temps.

  9. There are only two national newspapers in the UK I would trust (by which I mean even contemplate believing a single word they write). The Independent is one of them. I am, by the way, a UK journalist by trade, although I no longer work in newspapers, and haven’t done for a number of years.

  10. Haven’t lived in the UK for over ten years now, but when I did the Independent passed my simple test for newspaper credibility – no horoscope.

  11. Libel law in the UK is not like it is in the US. Before the Independant runs a story like this it has to convince its lawyers that it can prove it is true in court. If it can’t then you are looking at the kind of damages that could bankrupt the company.

    This is not a credibility issue since even the least credible would not make up allegations like this.

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