How Amazon Exported American Working Conditions To Europe

New from me: How Amazon Exported American Working Conditions To Europe—to serve costumers in Western Europe, Amazon built warehouses in Poland, Slovakia, & Czechia, where looser labor laws & stricter working conditions more closely resemble US standards..

Amazon, American Working Conditions

POZNAN, Poland — The first full-day strike at an Amazon warehouse was on May 14, 2013. Seven hundred workers in all picketed outside three facilities in Germany, the company’s biggest market outside the US. Carrying banners reading “Today we fight for RESPECT,” they demanded higher wages, more permanent rather than short-term contracts, and an end to productivity quotas.

A third of the workforce was off the job at the three centrally located fulfillment centers — a surge of collective action Amazon had never before faced anywhere. “It felt like a historic day,” said Andreas Gangl, who started at Amazon’s warehouse in Bad Hersfeld, Germany, in 2008 and worked in the returns department. “I think it was the best day in the world.”

Amazon, which has consistently opposed unionization efforts throughout its history, appeared to be reeling. The strikers, who had unionized two years earlier under their country’s robust labor laws, won significant concessions: Hourly wages rose from 9.83 euros to 11.62. The company decreased its reliance on temp agency employees, by the union’s estimate, from around 75% of the workforce to 25%, supplanted by employees with full company benefits and longer entry-level contracts. And Amazon agreed to stop firing workers for failing to meet productivity quotas in all three striking warehouses.

But the retail giant had another plan brewing. Two months after the first German strike, Amazon announced that it would expand into central Europe for the first time. Over the next eight years, the company opened 12 fulfillment centers across neighboring Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia. More than 30,000 workers in those three countries now pump out products for Western European customers for less than half the wages of their German counterparts, and with none of the labor protections the Germans had just won.

A BuzzFeed News investigation based on documents and dozens of interviews has found that working conditions at Amazon facilities in central Europe resemble a pressure cauldron where staff often work past the point of exhaustion to meet ever-increasing quotas to avoid termination. Polish government inspectors have found that workers were under more physical strain than legally acceptable. Internal data showed production expectations rising every week for at least a third of warehouse jobs. Staffers in three central European facilities told BuzzFeed News they regularly witnessed colleagues fainting from exhaustion. Four employees said they were reprimanded for trying to organize or advocate for better working conditions. One former HR officer in Szczecin, Poland, said he fired hundreds of people in the course of one year, including some for using more than three sick days in one month.

The expansion across central Europe was unprecedented. For years, Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia were the only countries with Amazon warehouses but no Amazon website — and though a Polish site went up in 2021, the other two nations still have none. For the first time, the company entered countries solely for their labor, without an interest in their consumer markets.

The plan paid off. Within a year, the warehouses in Poland became the corporation’s most productive in the world, delivering hundreds of thousands of packages every day to Germany and other Western European countries. The strategy’s success reflected a model Amazon has honed for years; the company had developed its highest volume fulfillment centers by exploiting weak enforcement mechanisms in countries with labor standards similar to the place where Amazon first rose to dominance, the US.

In Poland, Amazon is able to run an operation “more close to what the US is doing,” said a former senior manager in Poland who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. Amazon’s most productive warehouses had long been in the US; as the company expanded through Poland and across central Europe, it exported efficiency tactics honed under American labor laws.

Many workers in those countries welcomed the Amazon fulfillment centers, which are among the biggest warehouses in central Europe, with a forest of yellow shelves boasting the companys unparalleled inventory and a state-of-the-art cafeteria featuring big-screen TVs, video game consoles, and colorful chairs. For a generation of workers who grew up after the Cold War, Amazon’s arrival was emblematic of a new stage in their countries’ transition from the former East Bloc communism to Western-style capitalism. Amazon pays higher than minimum wage in each country, offers to cover up to 95% of schooling or vocational programs for employees with more than a year on the job, and provides bus service even more than 100 miles away — free in Poland and Czechia, 24 euros a month in Slovakia. More than a dozen central European workers who spoke to BuzzFeed News expressed pride at being a part of one of the most successful companies in the world. “For me, this is America,” said a worker in Poznan who requested anonymity because they feared losing their job. “This is America in Poland.”

As in America, in Poland Amazon benefits not just from looser workplace requirements, but lesser consequences for breaking labor laws. Judges in at least three cases in 2018 and 2019 ruled that the company used wrongful firing practices, though under Polish law local judgments can influence future lawsuits but not force a change in business practices. From 2014 to 2018, according to a BuzzFeed News review of Polish court documents, the inspectorate observed 117 violations on 12 of its visits to Poland warehouses and issued fines totaling $4,609 — equivalent to less than six months of wages for its lowest-paid employees.

“In 30 years, I’ve never seen a company that has avoided regulations as effectively as Amazon,” said Jarosław Łucka, a former corporate compliance director who was commissioned by a Polish court to inspect the Poznan facility in 2018. “They don’t care about the law here. They’re willing to just pay the fines.”

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