February 22, 2013 4:34 pm

Amazon accused over temporary workers

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Amazon faced a public outcry this week in Germany, its biggest overseas market, after a television documentary shone a withering spotlight on the treatment of temporary workers.

The film followed a group of seasonal workers bussed by staffing agencies from Spain, Poland and other parts of Europe to deal with the Christmas rush at an Amazon parcel centre in Germany.

Disputed employment contracts, unreliable transport, cramped accommodation in a holiday park and, above all, the monitoring of workers there by a jackbooted security company with alleged ties to the far-right, triggered a storm of opprobrium.

Ralf Kleber, Amazon’s chief executive officer in Germany, on Thursday said he regretted the events filmed at the holiday park.

“For a security company to threaten our workers in the manner depicted, is unacceptable,” he said. The security company has since been fired.

However, Mr Kleber also told Spiegel Online that it would be wrong to argue this was characteristic of Amazon’s labour practices.

Germany’s labour minister threatened to revoke the licence of employment agencies should the allegations prove correct. The row mirrors criticism of Amazon’s labour practices in the US and UK and could mark a watershed for Germany’s attitude towards temporary employment.

Labour market reforms a decade ago led to a boom in Germany’s temporary workforce but trade unions complain these jobs are low-paid, unreliable and poorly regulated.

Separately, Germany’s cartel office has begun questioning traders who use Amazon’s web platform over a pricing clause that forbids them selling their goods more cheaply elsewhere. Mr Kleber said he welcomed the investigation.

“Amazon wants to offer its customers products at competitive prices,” he said. But Germans started asking themselves this week: competitive prices at what cost?

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