December 19, 2013, 9:57 AM

German workers take their wage protest to Amazon’s headquarters

On Monday, a delegation from the German union group Ver.di joined U.S. labor and trade groups to protest outside Amazon’s Seattle headquarters. Amazon says no customer shipments were affected and it will not negotiate with intermediary organizations.

Amy Dusto

Associate Editor

Lead Photo

A wage dispute with German distribution center workers has arrived at the front door of Amazon.com Inc.

On Monday, about 50 protesters from union and trade groups, including the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and a delegation from the 2.1-million member German trade organization Ver.di,  gathered outside Amazon.com Inc.’s Seattle headquarters. Their demand: that the world’s largest Internet retailer raise wages for its warehouse workers in Germany.  According to Ver.di, which has been organizing strikes at several of Amazon fulfillment centers across Germany since April, Amazon pays its laborers two-thirds the wages offered by comparable German companies.

“The Amazon system is characterized by low wages, permanent pressure to perform or temporary employment,” says Stefanie Nutzenberger, a member of the Ver.di board.

Amazon disagrees. “We pay more in total compensation than the ‘logistics’ tariff that governs warehouse workers in Germany,” a spokeswoman for the retailer says.

Wages in Germany are required to follow rates set for each industry, known as tariffs. According to Ver.di, Amazon classifies its warehouse workers as part of the logistics industry because the wage rates for that industry are lower than in retail or mail-order industries, which is how protestors would like to be classified. Amazon’s spokeswoman does not address that difference directly, but says the average pay for a worker in one of its German warehouses is higher than the logistics tariff requires.

Nor will Amazon negotiate with the labor unions in Germany. “We feel it is best to work directly with our employees, not through an intermediary,” the spokeswoman says. Instead, in eight of Amazon’s German fulfillment centers, councils of peer-elected staffers meet regularly with the retailer to discuss working conditions, she says. Those councils have been in place at Amazon’s German work sites since the end of June, according to the Ver.di web site.

In Seattle, the protesters chanted and carried signs reading “We are humans not robots,” says a spokesman for the AFL-CIO. The phrase refers to Amazon’s tight time requirements for how long employees have to pick items off the shelves, which can make it hard for them to take breaks, he says. “The risk of on-the-job injuries increase as workers get tired from the rapid pace and demands of the work,” he says. “It is not uncommon to have ambulances stationed outside the centers to treat workers from exhaustion.”

Although the protests come during retail’s busiest season, no customer shipments have been affected by the activity in Seattle or abroad, the Amazon spokeswoman says, adding that “the vast majority of our workers in Germany are not participating in these strike activities.” The AFL-CIO spokesman says more than 1,200 laborers walked off the job to strike at four Amazon fulfillment centers in Germany.

In addition to the AFL-CIO, American unions and labor groups that attended the protest to show solidarity with the Ver.di workers include: the Martin Luther King County Labor Council, Communications Workers of America, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union and Working Washington.

“The act of solidarity of American unions for the strikes in Germany is a powerful sign that cooperation among workers is not bounded by national borders and continents,” says Frank Bsirske, chairman of Ver.di. “These protests are an encouraging response to the questionable methods of a global company like Amazon.”

The first strike of Amazon workers in Germany started April 9, when 600 German workers in the town of Bad Hersfeld stood outside the retailer’s facility there to protest Amazon’s refusal to bargain with the union on wages, according to Ver.di.

Amazon booked nearly 12.3 billion euros ($16.9 billion) in sales in Europe in 2012, Internet Retailer estimates, more than a quarter of the company’s global revenue of $61.1 billion last year. Amazon is No. 1 in the Europe 500 and the Top 500.

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