• Thuggish guards 'go into the house when the people are not there. And also when they are there, sleeping or in the shower' (Photo: Mags_cat)

Amazon under fire in Germany over 'neo-Nazi' guards

15.02.13 @ 10:13

  1. By Honor Mahony
  2. Honor email
  3. Honor Twitter

BRUSSELS - Online retailer Amazon is at the centre of a media storm after its subsidiaries in Germany were accused of terrible labour conditions and using neo-Nazi guards to intimidate the workforce.

The allegations were made in a half-hour documentary published on German public broadcaster ARD on Thursday (14 February) which examined the living and working circumstances of the firm's thousands of temporary workers from all over Europe.

The workers, say the film-makers, live in cramped houses, have to work 15 days in a row, walk up to 17km a day in the huge warehouses and earn less than they were originally promised before leaving their home countries to come to Germany.

Meanwhile, they are watched over by security guards with shaven heads, leather jackets and big boots. The guards are omnipresent. They are said to frisk people to make sure they are not taking bread rolls from the canteen. They also appear to have free rein to check the workers' accommodation, entering bedrooms and kitchens.

"They go into the house when the people are not there. And also when they are there, sleeping or in the shower," said Silvina, a Spanish art teacher, who works to earn money for her husband and three children back in Spain.

"They tell us they are the police here,” another Spanish woman told the film-makers.

The guards work for Hess security, which ARD suggested is an allusion to Adolf Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess. Several of them are shown in the documentary wearing Thor Steinar clothing, which is synonymous with neo-Nazis groups in Germany.

The clothing label is banned both by Germany's parliament and the country's football association for its far-right links - the reason why Amazon itself also does not sell the label online.

Maria, a Spanish worker, who several times complained about the housing conditions, had experience of the guards first hand. She was summarily fired, apparently for drying her wet clothes on a heater. She recounted how the guards waited outside the chalet with their car headlights on full as she packed.

When the guards discovered that journalists had been filming, they came to their hotel room - the film-makers were staying in the same budget hotel as some of the workers - and demanded to have the film. They then kept them in their room until the police came to free them.

"We felt threatened," said one of the film-makers.

The workers also complained of suffering other indignities.

Chief among them is how to get from the accommodation - normally empty holiday complexes - to the amazon warehouses. Busses take the workers to and fro. But there are too few of them and shift times are flexible.

So workers sometime have to wait for hours at night or in the cold to get the bus home or into work. If they are late - which they frequently are - their pay is docked, they said.

"They receive so little money, they sometimes have to beg for coffee in the canteen," one minibus driver noted.

Actual work contracts with amazon are rare. And the workers, hired by temporary work firms on behalf of amazon, can be fired on the spot.

Despite the problems, the film-makers noted that the workers, are glad to have the chance to earn money. Spanish Maria said that getting a job in amazon Germany was perceived as "winning the lottery."

The German programme runs a clip from Spanish TV which in October showed a bus-full of cheering Spaniards leaving for Germany.

A member of Amazon's workers' council interviewed by the film-makers suggested that the firm cannot argue it is not aware of the problems because they have been flagged many times.

Last year the company - whose business model is based on selling a wide range of goods as cheaply as possible resulting in very low profit margins - recorded a €6.8bn turnover in Germany.

One way of keeping costs low is hiring temporary workers, particularly during busy periods like Christmas. According to the trade union Verdi, of the 3,300 workers at a warehouse in Koblenz west Germany, only 200 of them were fixed employees.

Amazon has seven distribution centres in Germany.

“Although the security firm was not contracted by Amazon we are, of course, currently examining the allegations concerning the behaviour of security guards and will take the appropriate measures immediately," it said in a statement in response to the documentary.

"We do not tolerate discrimination or intimidation."