Amazon has been one of the strongest driving forces behind the surge of e-commerce holiday sales around Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and the rest of the days leading to the end of the new year. Now, some of its workers in Europe have picked one of the biggest shopping days of the year to protest the company’s practices, dubbing the day “Strike Friday” instead.
Workers at Amazon facilities across Italy and Germany are striking outside Amazon’s warehouses to speak out against a wide range of company practices that they say “endanger the health of its employees,” covering such areas as leadership culture and performance controls.
Germany is Amazon’s second-biggest market globally after the U.S., and the strikes there took place in six major depots in Bad Hersfeld, Leipzig, Rheinberg, Werne, Graben and Koblenz, according to Verdi, a trade union in Germany. (And they actually first started earlier this week, and may go on through the weekend.) In Italy, workers associated with three different unions — CGIL, CISL, and UIL — have been striking in what appears to be only one location, in Piacenza.
In Germany, the Verdi union wants Amazon to adopt a new framework for “Gute und gesunde Arbeit” (‘good and healthy work’), potentially with some pressure from regulatory bodies behind it.
“Amazon permanently endangers the health of its employees with its way of working. High pressure to create more and more in less time, permanent performance controls and monitoring, a poor leadership culture and inadequate recovery times are health hazards in the Amazon labor process,” Stefanie Nutzberger, Verdi a board member, said in a statement (originally in German). “A special collective agreement can guarantee healthy and good working conditions. We should create the necessary regulations so that employees are no longer exposed to the arbitrariness of an employer who also conducts its business at the expense of their health.”
The complaints in Italy echoed this idea, too,
“Work is not a commodity,” said Annamaria Furlan, the secretary general of CISL in Italy (originally in Italian). “The dignity of workers must not be trampled on. Amazon needs to open a dialogue with unions over industrial relations, employment stability and better salaries.”
Amazon tells TechCrunch that not all employees were striking today. “The vast majority of our employees in Italy and Germany came to work and remained focused on delivering the best customer experience. We are proud of our record of job creation and are confident we will deliver for our customers this holiday season,” a spokesperson said. “Amazon is a good employer. We are committed to ensuring a fair cooperation with all our employees, granting valuable working conditions and a caring and inclusive environment in all our workplaces.”
We’ve asked if Amazon is negotiating at all with the unions over their requests, and while not answering the question directly, this is what they told us:
“Everywhere we operate we offer our Fulfillment Center employees’ competitive salaries and very attractive benefits including an innovative program called Career Choice that provides employees funding for adult education, offering to pre-pay 95% of tuition and associated fees for nationally recognized courses,” the spokesperson said. “To make sure we remain competitive, we review compensation information and benefits that are offered for similar jobs in the local areas annually and make adjustments as appropriate.”
The protests come at a key time for Amazon in the region. On one hand, the company continues to be a juggernaut not only in the world of e-commerce and cloud services, but new developments in AI and voice interfaces — specifically around Amazon’s popular Echo hub and its Alexa interface — are laying the groundwork for Amazon to play an even bigger role in our digital lives.
On the other hand, the company has long been scrutinised for how it handles its taxes, and in some countries the impact that it is having on local and smaller businesses. In the former case, it appears that Europe and individual countries are now starting to take action.
The latter idea of Amazon affecting small and local businesses is less of a call to action these days than it was some years ago, although when and if tides turn and we see more protests against the company’s other practices, this could become an issue again.
Amazon has been lauded for its immense and efficient logistics operation, but protests like these point to how it’s not always smooth sailing, and that Amazon’s gains come at a labor price (for now, at least).
Germany last year generated over $14.2 billion in sales for Amazon, a distant second to the U.S. and its $90.3 billion of revenue, but still enough to make the it second-largest market in the world. Italy appears to be the fourth-largest market for Amazon in Europe, after Germany, the UK and France. Amazon last year earmarked an extra $550 million of investment into the country to build out its business, expand data centers and tap into an economy that is relatively underdevelopment in terms of Internet speed and online spend compared to other parts of Europe.
Updated with comment from Amazon