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John Riceburg: Amazon on strike

It seems like magic, right? You just push a button on your computer and a book appears out of thin air in your mailbox. But Amazon's magic may not be what it seems.

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Photo by Mayra Gomez

It’s close enough to magic, right? You just push a button on your computer and a book appears out of thin air in your mailbox. “I just realized I forgot to get a Christmas gift for Aunt Helga in Pisshausen!” Well, the magic of Amazon is here for you, right? And we all need a little magic around Christmas.

It’s often cheaper than other retailers, it’s quick and it involves minimal engagement. And Aunt Helga’s happy.

But like with all “magic”, their secret is less than awe-inspiring: Amazon.de employs more than 9000 workers in their their nine giant warehouses across Germany to “pick” and “pack” products. The “pickers” carry a hand scanner at all times so every second of idleness can be measured. They walk up to 20 kilometres a day, and many of them get sick: the illness rate at Amazon’s plants can be as high as 25 percent – the average for all workers in Germany is below 4 percent.

No wonder Amazon’s workers are angry. Since Monday, 2500 of them have been on strike in seven of the company’s nine warehouses. The trade union ver.di is demanding a Tarifvertrag (a collective bargaining agreement) and has been organizing strikes since May 2013. This week – the week with the highest revenue right before Christmas – is witnessing the biggest strikes yet.

Sure, the workers get somewhat more than the upcoming minimum wage (€9.75 per hour at their newest location in Brieselang, for example). But with a Tarifvertrag, they would get a starting wage of €11.40 plus a Christmas bonus of €1000. Amazon currently employs as many people as possible with befristete (limited) contracts: They are expected to give 110 percent in the hope that their contract will be renewed. The workers want job security and, above all, Respekt.

At the Amazon warehouse in Brieselang, Brandenburg a few dozen kilometres past Spandau, most of the workers come from Berlin and have to drive up to two hours to work. Many Amazon workers are sent straight from the Jobcenter – if they refuse this job opportunity, they can have their benefits cut. Many of the managers are recruited from the German army in order to create an appropriately “friendly” work environment. And while a worker might pay 20 percent of his or her income in taxes, the corporation, based in the tax-haven of Luxemburg, pays only 1 percent!

So I’m supporting the strike. When you buy something from Amazon, write a product review: “The book was okay, but it would have been better if the workers had a Tarifvertrag!” Or you can order a gift card which will be proofread by a worker: “For better working conditions at Amazon! I support the strike!” Or you can sign an online petition for better conditions. Or you can order somewhere else.

And one last thing: Is Amazon actually that convenient? If I order a book from Amazon tonight, it will ship tomorrow and arrive the day after. But since my delivery person almost never tries to actually deliver the package at my building, I have to wait one more day and ride my bike several kilometres to the next post office. That’s three days. In contrast, there’s a book shop just 500 metres from my house. I can call them anytime before 7pm and have them order just about any book available in Germany – including English titles! Then I can pick it up the next day at 10am. The price is the same thanks to Germany’s Buchpreisbindung, and I don’t pay for shipping.

Amazon’s extremely effective magic trick has been to convince us all that it’s good for everyone.