Amazon workers campaign for their rights in the US

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Amazon workers in the ver.di trade union in Germany are campaigning for better wages and conditions
Amazon workers in the ver.di trade union in Germany are campaigning for better wages and conditions

WASHINGTON – Could Amazon’s Jeff Bezos survive one of his company’s own warehouses for a week?

That’s the question Nancy Becker, an American employed by Amazon in Germany since 2001, asked as she trekked to Seattle this week to stand up for the rights of workers in the online retailer’s ‘fulfilment centres.’

The centres – little more than warehouses where workers are faced with near-impossible workloads for minimal pay – were the subject of rallies in Seattle and Germany on Monday.

Becker travelled from her workplace in Germany, ‘I’m coming to Seattle to dare Jeff Bezos to try working as a picker for a single week. I’m sure he would not survive.’

In recent months, workers at Amazon’s warehouses in Bad Hersfeld, Leipzig and Graben in Germany have engaged in a series of rolling strikes.

They were hoping to increase pressure on Amazon by sending protesters to the company’s Seattle headquarters, where they were joined by American workers also opposed to the low wages and harsh work conditions that the company’s American warehouses share.

On the eve of Monday’s rallies, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said: ‘We welcome the German Amazon workers and their union, ver.di, to the United States.

‘Just as German workers have stood in support of US workers employed by global corporations, we join your fight for fairness at one of the largest corporate retailers in the world.

‘It’s time that Amazon make good on its obligations to its workers, not just its shareholders and executives, and we will be there in Seattle to make our voices heard.

‘The complaints about Amazon are pretty similar in both countries: “The Amazon system is characterised by low wages, permanent performance pressure and short-term contracts,” said Stefanie Nutzenberger, a board member of ver.di, the union representing the German Amazon workers.

‘Instead of classifying fulfilment centre workers as retail employees, the company calls them “logistics” workers and then pays them lower rates than they would have to pay retail workers.

‘This misclassification allows the company to claim that it’s paying workers a higher wage for their field than other companies, when the reality is they would have significantly higher wages if correctly classified as retail workers.

‘And despite claims that Amazon has made about safety being a top priority, last month, an investigation by the BBC’s Panorama programme into a UK-based Amazon warehouse found conditions a stress expert said could cause “mental and physical illness”.

‘The workers are treated more as robots than human,’ Markus Hoffmann-Achenbach, an organiser for ver.di at the Amazon warehouse in the city of Werne, said by email.

He was on his way to Seattle to participate in the demonstration.

‘As a worldwide company,’ Hoffmann-Achenbach added, ‘Amazon should treat their workers fairly and with respect in every country.

‘The solidarity of American unions and ver.di, the united services union of Germany, is a sign that social movements are not bounded by national borders and that in times of globalisation, the workers worldwide stand together as one.’

Amazon officials seemed to have little sympathy for their own workers.

Amazon’s German country head Ralf Kleber said the company had no intention of bowing to pressure from striking workers and was more worried about bad weather hurting Christmas deliveries, in an interview last month.

You can almost hear Kleber ending the sentence with a ‘bah’ or a ‘humbug.’

• Joslyn Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO, sent out an action alert on Monday calling on Washington, D.C., residents to call city council member Marion Barry and ask him to vote to keep proposed legislation, increasing the minimum wage and expanding paid sick days laws, strong.

The D.C. Council is set to vote today on increasing the minimum wage and providing tipped workers with paid sick days, but the National Restaurant Association is trying to weaken the paid sick days law by removing protections for workers who speak out when their employers violate the law.

Barry has been targeted by the employers’ association in hopes that he will push to change the bill to weaken workers’ rights, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council.

Williams and other working families advocates in the District of Columbia are asking area residents to call Barry’s office and urge him to vote in favour of the rights of workers and not extremist corporate interests.

As Williams notes: ‘D.C.’s paid sick days law has been on the books since 2008, and it’s been hugely successful.

‘More than 70% of businesses in D.C. now provide paid sick days to workers and, unlike what corporate interests wanted you to believe, it hasn’t hurt businesses or killed jobs.

‘It wasn’t a perfect law, though. It didn’t cover tipped workers and lacked protections to stop employers from retaliating against workers who exposed violations of the law.’

• The Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM) filed a class-action lawsuit on Wednesday against the US Labour Department to ensure that migrant workers get fair wages.

Earlier this year, the department instructed employers that they were required to pay H-2B visa workers market rate wages, but CDM says recently the department reversed this policy and told employers they could pay these workers wages below market value.

The lawsuit seeks to overturn this policy change.

More than 50,000 workers are in the United States on H-2B visas and they could be negatively affected by this policy change, CDM says.

The workers are employed in landscaping, construction and other industries. Also participating in the lawsuit on behalf of the workers are co-counsel Edward Tuddenham, Friends of Farmworkers, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Northwest Workers’ Justice Project and Florida Legal Services.