Amazon Under Fire Over Alleged Worker Abuse in Germany

Amazon's logistics center in Bad Hersfeld, Germany, is its biggest in Europe, with over 100,000 square meters of space Photo by Charles Ommanney/Getty Images

Online retailer is under attack in Germany for alleged mistreatment of its workers after a television documentary showed immigrant employees living in cramped housing under surveillance by security guards in neo-Nazi garb.

Amazon on Feb. 18 said it had canceled a contract with a security company whose guards were accused of harassing workers, searching their rooms, and frisking them to make sure they had not taken food from the dining room. “The criticized security service is not used any longer,” a Munich-based Amazon spokeswoman said in an e-mail. “Amazon has zero tolerance for discrimination and intimidation.”

In the documentary, aired last week on the public ARD network, employees from Eastern Europe and Spain said they had been recruited in their home countries for short-term jobs during the pre-Christmas season at an Amazon logistics center in Bad Hersfeld, about 100 miles northeast of Frankfurt.

The workers said they were informed shortly before going to Germany that they would be employed by a temporary-services agency, rather than by Amazon. Upon arrival, they said, they learned they would be paid only €8.52  ($11.37) per hour, compared to €9.69 promised earlier. They were housed in an overcrowded resort complex and bused daily to the Amazon facility. “The people are stuffed in little huts, seven of them, and fed in the cellar of the restaurant like pigs,” one of the bus drivers told an interviewer on the TV show. Like most of those interviewed, he did not give his name.

Amazon’s German press service did not immediately respond to questions on Tuesday from Bloomberg Businessweek about the recruitment and housing of immigrant workers. A telephone message left at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters was not immediately returned.

Some of the most sensational footage showed security guards on duty at the resort complex. The guards had military-style haircuts and wore black hoodies made by Thor Steinar, a company that produces similar garb worn by neo-Nazi groups. Because of that association, Thor Steinar apparel is banned at some German soccer stadiums, and Amazon’s German site has refused to sell the brand since 2009. Adding to the shock value, the guards’ apparel were emblazoned with the letters HESS—representing Hensel European Security Services, the now-fired security company—but also reminiscent of Rudolf Hess, a top deputy to Adolf Hitler.

The security guards “go into our housing when the people are not there, or are sleeping, or taking a shower,” a worker who identified herself only as Selvina told interviewers on the documentary. A second worker, who said her name was Maria, said security guards intimidated her after she complained about housing conditions, and the next day she was fired.

The incident casts a shadow over Amazon’s rapid growth in Germany, its second-largest market after the U.S. The company employs about 8,000 workers at eight German logistics centers, five of which have opened since December 2011, according to a list compiled by MWPVL International, a supply chain and logistics consulting company based in Montreal.

A spokeswoman for Germany’s Labor Ministry told Bloomberg News that the government would review the activities of the temporary employment company that recruited the workers and could revoke its license if wrongdoing is found. Amazon has sometimes drawn criticism for working conditions at its other European facilities, which include eight logistics centers in Britain, four in France, and one apiece in Italy and Spain, according to consultant MWPVL.

A report this month in the Financial Times quoted employees at a facility in the British town of Rugeley complaining about grueling work schedules and blisters caused by having to walk long distances in required safety boots. Amazon told the newspaper in a statement: “Some of the positions in our fulfilment centers are indeed physically demanding, and some associates may log between seven and 15 miles walking per shift. We are clear about this in our job postings.”

Workers at Amazon logistics centers in France have staged brief strikes in recent years over complaints, including high injury rates and heavy-handed security measures.

None of the disputes, though, has stirred as much anger as the German documentary. Heiner Reiman, a representative of Germany’s Ver.di labor union who was interviewed on the program, said Amazon was taking advantage of foreigners who are desperate for work. “The foreign temp workers have no voice,” he said. “There is a great fear of being sent back home without having received money. As long as this works, Amazon is going to continue with this practice.”

With reporting by Joseph de Weck of Bloomberg News in Berlin

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE