« Global Trade Talk

Are Amazon’s Warehouses Equivalent to Modern Day Sweatshops?

Numerous photos, such as this one, inside an Amazon warehouse were widely circulated on the Web earlier this year.

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

It appears that Amazon’s warehouses are the global book distribution chain’s equivalent of modern day sweatshops. Earlier this week Amazon fired its German security firm after a documentary film crew from ARD tied it to a far right wing group. The film crew revealed that seasonal workers hired by an Amazon subcontractor in Germany, many of whom were previously unemployed, were driven around Germany in buses, housed in poor conditions and kept under constant surveillance by the aforementioned security guards.

The Financial Times notes in their report on the firing:

On their arrival in Germany the temps were allegedly housed several to a cabin at a vacant holiday park where they were dependent on unreliable and overcrowded bus services. The workers were monitored by a security company called Hensel European Security Services, whose initials, the programme pointed out, spell out the surname of Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess.

This follows a thorough Financial Times report that documented the numerous complaints of Amazon warehouse workers in the UK, which included being issued cheap, ill-fitting footwear and being required to walk between 7 and 15 miles per day.

The FT studied Amazon’s labor practices, as well as broken promises. In 2011, “an Amazon official told a parliamentary committee the company employed about 15,000 people,” but according to 2011 accounts, Amazon averaged just 3,023 employees. And many of Amazon’s employees are temps with no benefits or long-term prospects with the company. Talk about bait-and-switch.

Of course, the company makes no apology for their practices. As the FT quotes Jeff Bezos saying in an earlier Forbes interview, after the magazine had named him CEO of the Year, “Our culture is friendly and intense, but if push comes to shove, we’ll settle for intense.”

Push comes to shove. Interesting turn of phrase, particularly in the context of the trouble in Germany.

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8 Comments

  1. Posted February 20, 2013 at 4:10 am | Permalink

    What a sensationalist report. Amazon no longer uses the suspect German firm. In a world where too many people are overweight, a job that involves walking (shock, horror) 7 – 15 miles a day is no bad thing. And how many of us are dependent on unreliable and overcrowded public transport?

    Perhaps I should quote a Kindleboards member:

    “I live in the Seattle area. I know a boat-load of people who work for Amazon, in a wide variety of capacities, from running in the warehouses right up to management in programming departments. I even know a guy who does product photography for the site. To a person, every single one of them loves their job and feels Amazon treats them not only fairly, but wonderfully. Sure, once in a while they have minor gripes, but on the whole they are glad they work for Amazon.”

  2. Edward Nawotka
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    @Lexi, did you read the FT reports that were linked to? Apparently not, because the issue goes deeper than merely being asked to walk all day in cheap shoes and riding the bus. I’m sure the folks who worked for Nike in Eugene also loved their jobs, but the kids who glue their shoes together in Myanmar, China back in the day also had their complaints. If Amazon controls such a huge percentage of the bookselling market in the US — and they are also gaining massive market share in the UK and Germany — questions such as their warehouse labor practices and broken promises are important to keep in mind.

  3. Eric
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Nawotka, you linked to FT reports that are hidden behind a “registration wall,” which I and others likely refuse to push through. Regardless, I think the “sensationalist report” Lexi is identifying is your own. Reading it offers the reader multiple examples of why this at least *sounds* like a crybaby story — especially the stupidest excerpt possible from the FT article.

    The firm’s initials spell out a Hitler henchman’s last name? Are you freaking kidding me, using that as some kind of evidence for sinister behavior?

  4. Edward Nawotka
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Eric, first, only the initial article requires “registration” — which is free and will allow you to read the article. Second, perhaps the most sensational part of this is not merely the name of the company —which was pointed out by the Financial Times, a paper as august as they come— but the attitude with which the guards treated the workers, which is described in the FT article. Asking whether or not these warehouses are the equivalent of sweatshops is a very direct and simple question which makes a corollary between our desire for cheap goods — in the context of our publication, books — and the labor practices that ensure Amazon can deliver these goods to us at such low prices, which has significantly disrupted the pre-existing bookselling and distribution chain. That Amazon offers among the lowest prices in the business, something that is achieved in no small part by keeping overhead and fixed expenses, like employees, low. You may disagree with my direct analogy, but I don’t believe it is such a “sensationalistic” question. The difference here is that typically the people who work in sweatshops are powerless to protest or make their conditions known; that this happened in Germany and the UK, where people have the power to protest such conditions, at least to some extent, is why we are even talking about it in the first place.

  5. Eric
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    Edward, nice tempered extrapolation here. Except… we’re not questioning the validity of the FT articles.

    If what’s important in their articles is the “attitude with which the guards treated the workers,” then why doesn’t your article mention how the guards treated them? You specifically chose to excerpt a line with the word ‘Hitler’ in it instead of anything specific about the guards’s treatment.

    Let’s clarify what sensationalism is:

    These were FT’s article’s headlines:
    “Amazon unpacked”
    “Amazon fires German security firm”
    Verdict: not sensationalized.

    Here’s yours:
    “Are Amazon’s Warehouses Equivalent to Modern Day Sweatshops?”
    Verdict: an obviously sensationalized attempt to piggyback their story and “gussy it up” to troll for readership.

    Maybe you still disagree, and retain that you merely asked a “direct and simple question.” Here is a similarly direct and simple question: “Is Edward Nawotka equivalent to a modern-day Hitler?” Hmm, yes, that’s a direct and simple question, but sensationalistic, and knowingly posed only to get a rise.

    You’ve attempted to backpedal here in the comments about how legitimate a story FT wrote, yet your own article is where the problem is.

    From the ‘Editor-in-Chief’ of this website, it’s just sloppy writing.

  6. John
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    How about this situation in Amazon warehouses in America?

    http://articles.mcall.com/2011-09-18/news/mc-allentown-amazon-complaints-20110917_1_warehouse-workers-heat-stress-brutal-heat

    Brutal working conditions at Amazon. Okay, the article stems from a few years back, but still it perhaps shows a recurring theme in Amazon practices.

  7. Friedrich
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    This whole story is actually totally overemphasized and motivated by an German labor union. Another German newspaper pointed out, that most of the poor conditions ain’t actually true. Well, besides the right wing security firm. The employees got actually paid above minimum wage and even above labor agreement wages. Additionally, Amazon paid for housing.

    This whole story is purely motivated by our German labor union called ver.di. They are trying to get Amazon into a labor agreement for years, so they can expand their power. Another side note: Even though ARD is our “German BBC”, our labor unions have traditionally influence on them. Like always, sometimes it doesn’t is what it looks like.

  8. Marcus
    Posted November 17, 2013 at 5:03 am | Permalink

    Guys shut up and just look at the picture. It spells volumes about how amazon is cutting corners every opportunity it gets. And at whose expense? Whoever they can take advantage of.

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