July is a very intensive month for hundreds of thousands of Amazon workers. During this period, the company celebrates its anniversary by organizing massive sales. Their peak moment falls halfway through the month and is known as Prime Day.
The corporation starts preparing for this event at the very beginning of July. During the first half of the month, workers aren’t allowed to take any time off, their shifts are extended (to even 52 hours per week) and they work under greater pressure. What more, the Amazon warehouses around the world (aka Fulfillment Centers) compete with one another for efficiency, trying to break new records in sending out packages. For managers this is an opportunity to earn very high bonuses, while for rank and file workers this period only means being forced to increase efficiency, working under greater control and immense exhaustion.
American analyses show that last year, on Prime Day, Amazon sold products worth close to $600 million. In July of this year Jeff Bezos was announced the richest man in the world, with a fortune worth $90 billion. Meanwhile, for their work during the summer peak workers in Poland were given a symbolic attendance bonus that amounted to 150zł (before taxes) and that was supposed to motivate them to go to work regularly.
Disproportions in wages between workers of the first rank, and managers as well as directors are so great that conflicts on this basis are unavoidable. In the summer season tensions run even higher because this is also the time when decisions concerning wage increases are made. In France, negotiations on wage increases take place during this time as required by French law. In Poland, Amazon conducts an annual review of the wages. This is an evaluation of the wage levels in select warehouses and occupations in relation to the situation on the local job market, based on which the company will make decisions about increases in pay. This method of calculating wages is also used by other enterprises. Companies do not consider the profits that are generated by the workers, but focus rather on the availability of cheap labor and the wages at local or similar workplaces – what only serves to perpetuate inequalities. In connection with the wages review, we, the OZZ Inicjatywa Pracownicza presented a list of demands to the management which were based on the results of an inquiry carried out in the workplace. Among the demands were: increasing the basic rate of pay to 30 percent, introducing the 13th salary based on the French model, introducing a higher seniority bonus based on the German model, introducing the holiday allowance financially covered by the social fund. Those demands were the subject of the last meeting between the OZZ Inicjatywa Pracownicza and representatives of the company.
Wages are not the only cause of disputes between workers and company bosses. Amazon keeps perfecting its model of disciplining and controlling workers in order to squeeze as much work out of them at as little cost as possible. In April in Poland the company introduced a new program of “home visits” which aim to control workers on sick days. Amazon wants in this way to “scare” workers not to take advantage of sick leave on doctor’s orders, in spite of the fact that the workers’ health is constantly subject to deterioration. Furthermore, attempts have been made in certain departments to increase the work regime by controlling toilet and lunch breaks. The company is also taking a more hardline approach to the so-called “time off task”, or those periods when workers aren’t engaged in any functions that are recognized by the computer system, such as for example, scanning products. Every 3 minutes of “time off task” is registered in the system, counted and interpreted as an extra break, which amounts to a breach of work regulations. This is considered the case even when a worker takes longer than 3 minutes to fix broken equipment or check an order that they are processing. Simultaneously, at the beginning of the summer the company lowered the quality of its employment model. In the past, after about half a year of employment by a temp agency followed by a three-month trial period contract, some workers were offered permanent contracts. Nowadays one has to work an additional year on a fixed-term contract. In result, the period of unstable employment has been increased from less than a year to nearly two years. Those workers who are not dismissed by the company during this time spend about 3 years on average working for Amazon. When we put forward an enquiry to the Human Resources office concerning the reason of the one-year trial contracts’ introduction, the answer was: „this modification is an outcome of our long-term policy and the conditions on the labour market”. According to the HR unit, this long-term policy is devoted to: „ensuring a safe working environment, building relations with clients, local community and to be an attractive employer”. Apparently, Amazon must be a very specific company if it builds its relations with the local community by providing members of this community with an extended period of unstable employment. How the aforementioned trial contracts contribute to the company’s attractiveness as an employer remains a mystery.
The restrictive system of work force management and the unstable conditions, which come along with low wages, are met with resistance on the part of the working world. During moments of intensive sales such as the July Prime Day, this resistance takes on greater expression. At the beginning of the summer season, the Amazon warehouses in Germany once again saw a wave of strikes. Workers from Leipzig, Augsburg, Bad Hersfeld, Rheinberg, and Werne who are part of the Verdii trade union demanded a Collective Bargaining Agreement that would guarantee them higher wages. Strikes also took place in France. Workers from the Sud Solidaires trade union at the FC in Orleans near Paris demanded better work conditions, greater stability and higher wages. At this time one of the trade union activists from the CGT was fired, to which the trade unions responded with a campaign against repressions and protests at the warehouse. In the center of Poznan a group of supporters made billboards exposing the unequal division of profits at the Amazon Corporation. The Workers’ Initiative organized a press conference near one of these banners to inform the public opinion about the situation, the conflicts in Poland as well as abroad, and about the demands of the Polish workers, which were presented to the employer just a few days earlier.
Don’t go too fast, work safely!
Besides organizing on the local level, during the hottest sales period workers from Poland (POZ1, WRO1, WRO2), Orleans near Paris (ORY1) and Leipzig (LEJ1) were able to coordinate a common action called, “Safe Package”. Its aim was to call attention to the health and safety issues of workers, which the company ignores during peak periods due to “business needs”. It is worth adding that the bosses regularly use health and safety regulations against workers in order to strengthen the hierarchies at the workplace. This allows the bosses to blame workers for accidents on the job, as well as to discipline and control them (which usually means repressing workers for union activity and punishing them for taking breaks, leaving their post, or attempting in any other way to make functioning at the warehouse easier for themselves). While all this makes it seem like the company cares for the health and safety of its workers, in reality, the company’s main concern is the well-being of its warehouse. To this end, health and safety regulations become a mere tool in the bosses’ hands to increase the pressure. In response, common flyers were distributed in warehouses in Orlean, Leipzig and Poland so as to highlight the behaviors that really affect the physical state of workers: drinking water regularly, going to the toilet, taking advantage of the entire break period to rest, refraining from lifting too-heavy loads, reporting overloaded locations, refraining from working at posts that are unfit for the task, trying not to rush, avoiding falling into routine, and etc.
In response to „Safe Package”, the management of the French FC made public declarations that it was taking steps to ensure the health of its workers. In Poland, managers were forced to make official announcements reminding people to drink water, what often time requires workers to leave their posts. In the end, at the FC near Poznań it was not possible this year to pack as many packages as it had been expected, in the planned amount of time. This was not only because of the discussion on health and safety, but primarily due to a series of organizational mistakes made by the managing cadre, as well as the high nonattendance of the workers. In spite of everything, “Safe Package” forced Amazon to respond to the health issues raised by the workers. The action served to show that even small, symbolic activity, which goes beyond the walls of one warehouse and breaks the limitations of different workplaces located in different countries, can send out a signal that is strong enough to force the company to react.
Together we are stronger
Following the action, the workers from Leipzig sent a letter to other participating Amazonians. In it, they wrote, “While our wages differ a lot, we have one thing in common: our work conditions! […] This common demand is the starting point for our common activities. We will continue to struggle together for healthy work conditions and just pay!”
Amazon employs nearly 400,000 workers around the world in several hundred warehouses. Each year, that number grows by the tens of thousands. Most are workers of the first rank. We live in various countries that have differing labor laws. We speak in different languages, we are of different skin colors and function in different social-economic conditions. In spite of these divisions, we have more in common with each other, than with our bosses; the leaders, the managers and the HR department. Many of us hope that subordinating themselves to the work regime imposed by the managers, or siding with their superiors instead of staying loyal to other workers will bring them a promotion. Unfortunately, promotions are given to exceptionally few workers and they most often include controversial responsibilities like disciplining and informing on former coworkers. Instead of breaking our unity by striving for uncertain individual success, we can use it to make work conditions and wages better for us all. We share common work conditions, the role that we play at our warehouses, as well as our desires: dignity and self-determination.
Amazon has tried to play down the meaning of the strikes in Germany. Xinhuanet quotes the company representative, writing: “The strikes would have no influence on the firms “promise to costumers” on Prime Day. Logistics centers in Germany and throughout Europe had prepared for the industrial action and increased their stock level accordingly. […] With the support of the other 31 logistical center throughout Europe, “customers will receive the fast and good service they are used to.”” Amazon knows how to use the relations among workers against them. We, in turn, must learn to use these relations against Amazon. By joining forces on the job we secured first place among the richest people in the world for the company’s founder. Surely we can work together to reclaim the riches that are the fruits of our labor, and use them for our own needs. Let’s unite in the struggle against constant control, against being treated as if we were mere extensions to machinery, for higher wages and safe work conditions. Only in this way, will we be able to permanently change the quality of our lives and the lives of those close to us.
Komisja Miedzyzakladowa OZZ IP przy Amazon Polska