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“Ausgeliefert!“ – Subcontracted Work and Amazon

February 17th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment »
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Eva Graf, currently studying on the MLitt in Publishing Studies, reports on a recent documentary which focused on conditions for staff at Amazon distribution centres in Germany:

The documentary “Ausgeliefert!” (a play on words as “ausgeliefert” has two meanings in German: dispatched and at the mercy of someone/something) kindled a lot of discussion in the German media.

Aired by the television channel ARD, the film by Diana Löbl and Peter Onneken shows how subcontracted workers (immigrant workforce) are being exploited by Amazon and degraded by hired security services.

In the beginning a short sequence depicts a group of happy Spaniards on their way to Germany, presumably to a better future. Nevertheless, the joy does not last very long, a short email sent by Amazon informs the workers that they will not be employed by Amazon directly but a temporary employment agency. Around 5000 workers from all over Europe are hired on a temporary three month contract leading up to Christmas. Instead of the promised 1,500€ they will earn 12% less. Despite this they all sign the contract, written in German, working three months for less than originally promised, as it is better than being unemployed at home. A situation which plays in the hands of Amazon and the agencies, as desperate people are unlikely to complain about a 12% wage cut.

The contract workers are lodged in remote holiday facilities, which are nowhere near the distribution centres. The nearest shopping is also miles away. The commute to work is made by coaches, yet despite being hired by the company there is not enough seating capacity and the coaches are overcrowded on a regular basis. If the coach is not on time for the beginning of a shift the workers have to accept a wage cut. This is a regular occurrence. This is not the only problem that is connected with the long commute and the hired coaches. Most of the time there is only one bus per shift. If there is not enough work and the contract workers are sent home early they have to wait for hours to actually have a chance to return to the remote holiday facilities. No matter if it is cold or snowing, the workers are stuck at the distribution centre. Some try to make the best out of the situation and go to sleep on the canteen tables.

Perhaps sleeping on canteen tables is more relaxing than sleeping in the actual accommodation. Five or more strangers share a small bungalow. The rooms are hardly big enough to store personal things as the double beds take up most of the space. Complaining about the conditions is not tolerated. After Ms. X complained about the living conditions she was kicked out under the pretext that she supposedly had been drying her laundry illegally on the radiators. The security guards followed her to her new shelter and focused the headlights through her window for hours to intimidate and scare her, as well as to undoubtedly demonstrate their power and superior position.

Security in accommodation is provided by a company H.E.S.S., the abbreviation standing for Hensel European Security Services. Despite that abbreviation the name also has a historical association with Rudolf Hess, a henchman of Hitler. The omnipresent security guards radiate the vibe of a paramilitary group, wearing black uniforms, boots and military haircuts. Two guards are even seen wearing Thor Steinar jumpers, a brand connected to the radical right-wing scene and therefore banned in German football stadiums and the Parliament. Ironically Amazon stopped selling Thor Steinar clothes because of this connection in 2009.

Guards search the rooms in absence of the inhabitants, as “this is our house and therefore we make the rules. We are like the police here”. Quotes like this demonstrate the pressure the workers have to live and cope with. Power-hungry guards are not only searching the rooms in absence of the inhabitants, they are also checking bags on a regular basis. The workers are permitted to take away one single roll for breakfast. A breakfast which they pay for.

The documentary shows the dark side of the booming retail giant. To satisfy our Christmas orders promptly underpaid workers have to walk 17km per shift. Temporary employment agencies cart desperate people to the German distribution centres where they work gruelling shifts for little money. It is possible to argue that this is modern slave trade. The winner and benefactor in this system is Amazon, which saves money through the small wages, made through the agencies that hire the workers. There are numerous other players, including travel agencies who book the accommodation (“I don’t count in humans, I count in buses.”), the owners of the holiday facilities (“I can place seven in one bungalow, that means you can save some money and I can accommodate more”, or “Of course I’ll take Polish workers, they are not as dirty and drunk like others”), and of course the seedy security company.

How can Amazon not know what happens with the contract workers? During the filming the company refused to answer any queries made by the crew. Following the controversy after the documentary was aired in Germany, Amazon promised to look into incidents and said they were most likely isolated cases. The response to the documentary in the rest of Europe has not been as shocked, with this article in The Indendent newspaper being one of very few media responses to the incident in the UK. Even if the occurrences were isolated, cases like this cause a bad aftertaste which stays.