Could Amazon’s Jeff Bezos Survive One of His Company’s Own Warehouses for a Week?

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That’s the question Nancy Becker, an American employed by Amazon in Germany since 2001, asked as she trekked to Seattle this week to stand up for the rights of workers in the online retailer’s “fulfillment centers.” The centers—little more than warehouses where workers are faced with near-impossible workloads for minimal pay—are the subject of rallies in Seattle and Germany on Monday. Becker traveled from her workplace in Germany, “I’m coming to Seattle to dare Jeff Bezos to try working as a picker for a single week. I’m sure he would not survive.”

In recent months, workers at Amazon’s warehouses in Bad Hersfeld, Leipzig and Graben in Germany have engaged in a series of rolling strikes. They are hoping to increase pressure on Amazon by sending protesters to the company’s Seattle headquarters, where they were joined by American workers also opposed to the low wages and harsh work conditions that the company’s American warehouses share.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said:

We welcome the German Amazon workers and their union, ver.di, to the United States. Just as German workers have stood in support of U.S. workers employed by global corporations, we join your fight for fairness at one of the largest corporate retailers in the world. It’s time that Amazon make good on its obligations to its workers, not just its shareholders and executives, and we will be there in Seattle to make our voices heard.

The complaints about Amazon are pretty similar in both countries: “The Amazon system is characterized by low wages, permanent performance pressure and short-term contracts,” said Stefanie Nutzenberger, a board member of ver.di, the union representing the German Amazon workers. Instead of classifying fulfillment center workers as retail employees, the company calls them “logistics” workers and then pays them lower rates than they would have to pay retail workers. This misclassification allows the company to claim that it’s paying workers a higher wage for their field than other companies, when the reality is they would have significantly higher wages if correctly classified as retail workers. And despite claims that Amazon has made about safety being a top priority, “Last month, an investigation by the BBC’s “Panorama” program into a U.K.-based Amazon warehouse found conditions a stress expert said could cause ‘mental and physical illness.’”

Workers categorized the conditions similarly:

“The workers are treated more as robots than human,” Markus Hoffmann-Achenbach, an organizer for Ver.di at the Amazon warehouse in the city of Werne, said by email. He was on his way to Seattle to participate in the demonstration.

“As a worldwide company,” Mr. Hoffmann-Achenbach added, “Amazon should treat their workers fairly and with respect in every country. The solidarity of American unions and ver.di, the united services union of Germany, is a sign that social movements are not bounded by national borders and that in times of globalization, the workers worldwide stand together as one.”

Amazon officials seemed to have little sympathy for their own workers:

But Amazon’s German country head Ralf Kleber said the company had no intention of bowing to pressure from striking workers and was more worried about bad weather hurting Christmas deliveries, he told Reuters in an interview last month.

You can almost hear Kleber ending the sentence with a “bah” or a “humbug.”

Photo by jurvetson on Flickr

Reposted from AFL-CIO NOW

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Amazon.com Workers File Suit over Unpaid Time

More workers at Amazon.com’s warehouses—that some describe as high-speed, high-tension  sweatshops—have filed federal court suits against the company and its contractors that supply the mostly temporary and low-paid workers for workplace rules that require them to undergo unpaid security checks at breaks and the end of their often 12-hour shifts.

The most recent legal action comes from workers at distribution centers in Kentucky, Tennessee and Washington State. Those suits follow one filed by Amazon.com warehouse workers in Nevada.

According to the complaints, writes Dave Jamieson at The Huffington Post, the workers have to go through a security checkpoint at the end of their shifts, as well as at the beginning of their unpaid breaks. Workers typically line up to pass through a metal detector, and they may have their bodies passed over with wands or their bags searched by guards if they happen to set the detector off. The searches usually take about 10 minutes but can be as long as 30 minutes in peak holiday season. Says Jamieson:

Collectively, the complaints suggest that Amazon’s policy of forcing workers to wait in security lines without pay is common practice at its growing number of distribution centers throughout the country. The suits also reveal some of the labor penny-pinching that’s enabled the world’s largest online retailer to undercut competitors with such fast and cheap shipping.

Read more from Jamieson.

In July, after President Obama appeared at an Amazon.com warehouse in Tennessee calling for creation of “middle class jobs,” we reported on working conditions at the online retail giant’s warehouses, including workers walking more than 10 miles a shift, temperatures as high as 110° F and with their productivity tracked by a scanner.

Workers are pressured to keep up dangerous levels of work for shifts that last 12 hours or more. Workers say they are constantly in fear of being written up or fired for not working fast enough. Employees reportedly have to participate in phone conferences where there was screaming and constant complaints that production numbers weren’t high enough, regardless of how high they were. Several former managers said they were retaliated against for complaining about work conditions.

Read the full story.

Reposted from AFL-CIO NOW

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Sorry, Mr. President, Amazon Isn’t the Place to Go for Good Jobs

In his speech in Chattanooga, Tenn., yesterday, President Obama rightfully called out for an increase in jobs that pay high wages and offer good benefits, what he called “middle class jobs,” and for a focus on creating manufacturing jobs.  While those are laudable goals, Obama chose to give a speech about these topics at the Amazon Chattanooga Fulfillment Center, a location that neither pays those good wages and benefits nor is a place that offers manufacturing jobs.

According to various reports, many of the 15,000 jobs at the 70-plus warehouses around the world pay $12.50 per hour.  Most workers have no health care (unless they pay for it themselves) or paid leave.  Full-time employees do have health insurance, 401(k) funds and get stock shares, but most employees are not full-time.

Work conditions at the fulfillment centers are widely reported to be horrible.  Workers report walking 10 miles or more on the average day, often in blistering heat. Workers were regularly sent to the emergency room after working in temperatures that sometimes exceeded 110 degrees.  Morning Call reported that at least one location hired a paramedic to wait outside closed warehouse doors to treat employees who fainted or were suffering from dehydration.

Productivity is tracked by a scanner database that automatically issued demerits regardless of how bad working conditions got in the warehouse.  If it got too hot, employees can choose to leave, but the computer gives them demerits for doing so.  Enough demerits would lead to firing and the only way around the heat-related demerits was a doctor’s note and a medical waiver from the warehouse managers.  A doctor’s note is a little harder to obtain when you don’t have paid sick days to visit a doctor and don’t have insurance and can’t afford a doctor on your low salary.

Workers are pressured to keep up dangerous levels of work for shifts that last 12 hours or more.  Workers say they are constantly in fear of being written up or fired for not working fast enough.  Employees reportedly have to participate in phone conferences where there was screaming and constant complaints that production numbers weren’t high enough, regardless of how high they were.  Several former managers said they were retaliated against for complaining about work conditions.

The Seattle Times reported that at a Kentucky warehouse, workers were pressured not to report injuries to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  A Pennsylvania worker filed a lawsuit after allegedly being told to lie about a workplace injury.  Also, the warehouses have such elaborate security procedures to prevent employee theft, Huffington Post reports, that leaving work can be a 25-minute unpaid ordeal.  Employees filed a class-action lawsuit against the practice.

As for “manufacturing” jobs, Amazon fails on that aspect, too.  By their nature, manufacturing jobs in the United States have traditionally paid well and had good benefits, which we’ve already seen don’t apply here.  But manufacturing jobs are supposed to be permanent jobs, as well.  Manufacturing jobs offer job stability, where you know that if you work hard, you’ll always have a job.  That’s not how Amazon works.

According to the Morning Call, many of Amazon’s fulfillment center jobs are temporary jobs hired through Integrity Staffing Solutions (ISS).  By hiring the workers as temps, they can, of course, be paid less and not given benefits.  But more importantly, it means that there is no job security.  Amazon reportedly offers the best workers permanent positions, but workers report that isn’t the way things usually happen.  Normally, after a designated number of hours, the jobs expire.  A few are given permanent jobs, but most are let go and have to apply again a few months later.  The permanent job carrot is dangled in front of temp workers to get them to work harder and harder, until the jobs end, people quit or they get injured.  Morning Call was told that turnover was very high at fulfillment centers.

Another key for manufacturing jobs is the right to organize and collectively bargain with management. The Seattle Times notes that unions are unwelcome at Amazon.

Early on, Amazon took a hard line against unions. A high-profile organizing effort by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) 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.

Fulfillment center workers say that they were forced to attend a meeting once a year where the company would denigrate unions and warn employees against joining them. The use of a largely temporary workforce also undercuts union organizing efforts, since the workforce is constantly changing and few workers are there long enough to participate in or lead organizing efforts.

So, while it is laudable that the president is pushing policies that would expand good jobs, he should pay a little more attention next time around to where he’s giving such a speech and make sure that the company he’s gracing with his presence isn’t part of the problem.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr

Reposted from AFL-CIO NOW

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