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Forced Labour and Trafficking

Amazon accused of neo-nazi surveillance of seasonal workers in Germany

Online retailer Amazon was recently accused of terrible labour conditions and using neo-Nazi guards to intimidate the workforce in its warehouse in Germany.

The company has faced repeated criticism over working conditions in its European distribution centers including in Germany as well as in the UK. Amazon workers have long complained of intense pressure, overwhelming surveillance, unfair wages and no real opportunity to get a fixed job with a company, despite initial promises.

Public opinion got a new shock on 14.02.2013 when German public broadcaster ARD published a half-hour documentary about Amazon warehouse in Bad Hersfeld, showing living and working circumstances of the firm’s thousands of temporary workers from all over Europe, including those who recently left Spain in order to escape the crisis.

The workers lived in cramped houses, have to work 15 days in a row, walked up to 17km a day in the huge warehouses and earned less than they were originally promised before leaving their home countries to come to Germany.

What shocked the public were the images of employees of the security firm Hensel European Security Services put at liberty to invade workers privacy at company hostels for the seasonal staff. The omnipresent security members, with shaven heads, leather jackets and big boots, appeared to have free rein to check the workers’ accommodation, entering bedrooms and kitchens and perform unlimted security checks to make sure workers are not taking bread rolls from the canteen.

Powerful and symbolic images generated a lot of media heat and 4 days later Amazon announced that the company had ended its relationship with HESS "with immediate effect".

The problem however remains. German services union Ver.di has long accused Amazon of paying its temporary workers unfair wages, intense pressure, random searches, short breaks and structural relationship with temporary work agencies, despite promises of creating ulitmately permament jobs.

According to Verdi, of the 3,300 workers at a warehouse in Koblenz west Germany, only 200 of them were fixed employees. The same 1:15 rate (fixed to agency staff) seems to prevail in other Amazon settings, for example in the UK, where Amazon reportedly uses services of around 15 000 people.

In the UK Amazon too faced a lot of critique for working conditions, where a recent investigation by the Times revealed that workers at an Amazon warehouse in the U.K. walked from 11 km to 24 km per day.

With the financial crisis hitting on Europe, workers are even more at pressure to accept unfair and unsecure employment conditions.

Press releases:

http://euobserver.com/economic/119074

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/amazon-used-neonazi-guards-to-keep-immigrant-workforce-under-control-in-germany-8495843.html

http://world.time.com/2013/02/19/amazon-fires-neo-nazi-security-firm-at-german-facilities/

http://mediathek.daserste.de/sendungen_a-z/799280_reportage-dokumentation/13402260_ausgeliefert-leiharbeiter-bei-amazon

Trafficking for labour exploitation in Europe needs to be better addressed. While actors in the field have only discovered a tip of an iceberg, any solution to the problem will require understanding of new trends, developing new responses and partnerships.

For that reason trade unions, NGOs and faith based organizations launched a partnership to contribute to anti-trafficking response in Europe. Through the new project ITUC, together with Anti-Slavery International and Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe as international partners, will improve responses to labour trafficking. The three organzations, as well as national partners in Austria, Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, Lithuania, Romania and Spain will in particular focus on exploring new trends in trafficking – such as gender dimension of labour trafficking, more and more severe exploitation of increasingly large groups of exploited migrant workers in mainstream economic activities and new labour trafficking recruitment methods including the use of Internet and ICTs.

The FINE TUNE project is supported by the ISEC/EU DG Home grant and it forms a part of the ITUC global action for protection of rights of trafficked workers and strenghtening labour standards for decent work.