German union demands Amazon warehouse closure after Coronavirus outbreak

By Merle Büter

A workers’ union representing employees of Amazon has demanded the closure of the company’s logistics centre after 68 employees were tested positive for the virus. The union, Verdi, also raised concerns after Amazon took 14 days to inform employees about the first positive test result.

An Amazon logistics centre, in Winsen, Northern Germany, has been the subject of public concern after 68 of 1,800 employees tested positive for the coronavirus. Unions say that that the figures, which were announced before the end of April, do not reflect the estimated number of unreported cases, which is likely to be much higher.  

The union Verdi says that safety measures in place are not sufficient. The logistics centre is 45 minutes walking distance from the nearest public transport, and Amazon offers a shuttle service to and from the warehouse. Workers say that social distancing is impossible in crowded buses and at the change of shift, with hundreds of people needing to enter the building at the same time. Current measures – such as increasing the distance between lockers – seem like a drop in the ocean, the union says.

“I do not understand why the logistic centres are not closed immediately, given the number of infections”, says Sandra Schmidt, member of Verdi in Lower Saxony-Bremen

Amazon’s new safety measures

Amazon claims to have put adequate safety measures in place.

“We distribute personal protective equipment such as masks for employees and have introduced temperature controls worldwide”, the German Amazon website states.

They also said that the increase of orders requires a balance between delivering vital goods to the customer and also ensuring safety for the employees.

Video controls

However, some of Amazon’s new measures could be punitive for workers. According to Verdi, which is the second biggest German trade union with more than 2 million members, Amazon uses CCTV in several centres. The company says that it is used to monitor whether the employees are complying with social distancing and staying at least 1.5 meters apart from each other.

In several locations workers’ councils (representative of workers, but independent from the trade union) tried to prevent this additional control.

A workers’ council in Rheinsberg, a logistic centre of Amazon in the Ruhrgebiet with more than 2000 employees, has had partial success after filing an objection with the industrial tribunal.

The Rheinsberger workers' council feared that the implementation of CCTV would be used as additional control of the workers and would not solely serve the safety measures.

The court agreed that the storage of the video material on severs abroad is not fulfilling the purpose of keeping employees safe, and that the worker’s council must agree before measures like CCTV monitoring are implemented.5 According to Amazon-Watchblog, Amazon is now looking for other ways at this location to ensure the safety of the workers in the buildings.

Incentives to work during pandemic

Verdi says that even Amazon’s recently announced pay rise may have dangerous consequences. In March, Amazon announced that it would pay every worker between the 16th of March and the end of April 2,00 € more per hour. However, the bonus was not offered for those shielding or needing to stay at home.

Verdi says that the move might have resulted in more people going to work even while sick, increasing the risk of infection.

Profits before safety?

While other retailers struggle in the face of the pandemic, the online giant is profiting from the boom in online shopping during the coronavirus crisis.8 In the first two weeks of April, Amazon made around 10 billion US-dollar in profits worldwide and Amazon shares rose about 15%.

The company said that it had seen “increasing demand” in Germany.9 More than 13,000 permanent employees work in 13 logistics centres in the country.

In light of the company’s financial wins, there remains the important question of how Amazon is keeping workers safe during the worldwide pandemic.