Amazon: the world's department store, just a mouse click away, convenient, fast, customer-friendly. This is how many consumers know the group. Its downside rarely became known: criticism is sparked by its brutal penetration of increased markets, its constantly growing data power, and the negative ecological, political, and social effects of its business model. The analysis is: Amazon is questioning the social achievements of the last decades, destroying the foundations of democracy and the social market economy, and increasing the erosion of labour markets that are structured according to collective agreements. And all this without any relevant participation by society in the value creation in the form of taxes.
Given the size and weight of the other party, where do you start fighting to improve things? Observers ask: What can be done about a corporation whose shiny facade is carefully guarded, which prevents co-determination as far as possible, which knows how to exploit the dependency of its low-paid employees in a powerful way? These questions concern trade unions, employee associations, clubs, and pastoral workers as well as local initiatives alike. And not just in Germany, but in many European countries where Amazon is constantly expanding its logistics infrastructure. So, it is only logical that resistance to exploitative conditions should also crossnational borders. Such a network enables to act regionally and nationally.
In this sense, at the end of January 2022, the NBH (Nell-Breuning-Haus) seminar on “The Amazon Principle – how platforms, new working methods and distribution channels have an impact on working conditions in Europe, and what options for action there are for workers’ organisations" in Stuttgart led 86 representatives of workers’ organisations from seven European countries to exchange information, experiences, and assessments. The seminar was supported by EZA and the European Union.
In addition to a basic explanation of the group, whose business areas go far beyond retail and specialist trade, the consultations primarily revolved around the oppressed everyday life of employees in Amazon's logistics infrastructure. An example in view: the so-called “last mile”, the delivery of parcels to customers. According to the findings of observers, the group does not rely on its own employees in 90 percent of the cases, but assigns the task to subcontractors and sub-subcontractors, albeit with specifications that inevitably lead to miserable employment conditions.
On paper there is a permanent job at the statutory minimum wage, with working hours and break regulations that are based on the legal requirements, with holiday entitlement, continued payment of wages in the event of illness and many other standards. But paper is patient and reality is brutally different, unions and other critical companions hear in confidential discussions with employees. We are talking about comprehensive monitoring with the help of an app that, among other things, transmits the position data of the employees. It does not record the break times as working time and otherwise regulates a mania for collecting when the limits of occupational safety are reached. But the control remains. The specifications as to what parcels are to be delivered in one day are so strict that they cannot be achieved under regular conditions. Occasionally we help each other out so that we can drive home completely exhausted in the evening. And that with a start to work between 8 and 9 in the morning.
It is only too obvious that such work gets on the bones and souls of the employees. The conversations also revealed the picture of subcontractors who withhold wages from their low-paid delivery workers when the vehicle or freight is damaged, when they get sick, when they want to take vacation days. Sometimes the agreed salary is only partially officially transferred. The rest is paid in cash, without a receipt, without witnesses, at night at a rest stop, for example. It is obvious that the subcontractor is engaged in social security fraud. However, this does not become public because the employee is also liable to prosecution if he accepts the money. The material dependency of the people is often exploited here. In awfully bad cases, wages are not paid at all or not in full, as some subcontractors and sub-subcontractors go bankrupt and disappear.
If you know about these conditions in the shadow of our prosperity, the success story of the global corporation loses its charm. Again and again a logistics, sorting or distribution centre is opened somewhere near motorways and airports, with promises of employment and tax effects in the respective region. If you look at the descriptions of those affected as well as the statistics and analyses, they will rarely materialise to the extent promised. On the contrary, in addition to the considerable surface sealing, an increased volume of traffic on land and in the air is to be expected, as well as harmful distortions of competition in trade to the benefit of the group.
Every new opening strengthens the company's performance and market position, and Amazon is already far ahead of any other mail order company when it comes to delivery times. What comes across as convenience to the customer weakens their choice.
What to do beyond direct help in the form of advice, support and legal representation? If Amazon does not use its opportunities to improve the conditions of employees in centres and delivery, civil society and political countermeasures must be taken. At the hybrid conference, regional and national approaches were discussed. This inspires and encourages to courageously and persistentlytake up the fight of David against Goliath. Just two examples: In the Memmingen area, a broad civil society alliance has succeeded in throwing sand in Amazon's settlement plans. The group is still looking for ways to set up logistics infrastructure at the airport and motorway there, but things are not going as easily as originally planned for them and there is broad awareness among the regional public about the problems associated with the plans. In Italy there was even a general strike with similar effects. The population is sensitised to the injustice that is happening to employees of Amazon and its sub-companies. Public pressure has reached politicians and there is even certain hope that there will be legislative regulatory initiatives.
Amazon and similar global players are destroying the foundations of democracy and the social market economy, increasing the erosion of collectively agreed jobs and crowding out collectively agreed jobs. Every new centre in Europe aggravates the situation and therefore immediate action must be taken.
The participants now serve as multipliers to pass on the experiences of the works councils, the regional alliances and the trade unions presented in the seminar. Further regional alliances are to be founded under the leadership of the trade unions and Christian employee organisations and the umbrella organisations (e.g., KAB Germany, KAB Austria) are to enable joint action by the regional alliances. The organisers of the seminar (e.g., via other events) are to initiate a networking of the different actions - and more intensive lobbying work