Can Amazon ever be replaced?

Trade unionists on jobs at Amazon: "Amazon wants to decide on its own"

The group expands, the workforce rebels: Thomas Voss explains how Amazon employees are suffering from digitized Taylorism.

Amazon logistics center in Rheinberg in North Rhine-Westphalia Photo: dpa

taz: Mr. Voss, the online retailer Amazon, which started out as a bookstore, wants to become the “Everything Store”. Is that even possible?

Thomas Voss: There are no limits at Amazon, on the contrary. The declared aim of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is to enforce a monopoly in the key markets. To this end, Amazon is investing in new shops at the devil's edge: In Germany, for example, Amazon has replaced the former DIY store leader OBI, has recently started trading in fresh food and will soon also start trading in cars. In addition to its trading activities, the group already produces its own TV series or smartphones and grants loans to companies.

What makes Amazon's business model so competitive?

At Amazon, customers complete central retail operations with a click of the mouse. You make the payment yourself and advise each other through product reviews. The costs for trained specialists such as cashiers or consultants are thus eliminated. This allows Amazon to concentrate on optimizing its logistical activities. Here the company combines the instruments of digitization with a Taylorist division of labor.

... that is, the management prescribes all work steps in detail for the employees and thus increases productivity. How exactly do you have to imagine that at Amazon?

The goods are stored in warehouses the size of several soccer fields according to the chaos principle. The computer divides the storage positions of the products on the shelves so that as little space as possible is required. As a result, there are no departments for product groups; the toothbrush lies next to the car tire and the condoms. Some employees unpack the incoming goods all day long, register them with handheld scanners and others then move them onto the shelves at the instruction of their handheld scanner. The so-called pickers take the ordered products from the shelves and other employees take care of loading the trucks. Thanks to the small work steps controlled by the hand scanner, Amazon achieves significantly higher sales than competing retailers with much less human intervention.

is the specialist group secretary for mail order and online trading at the Verdi service union. She demands from Amazon to pay the employees according to the collective agreements of the retail trade and is on strike in Rheinberg, among other places.

Why do people and not robots move the shelves in and out?

In some warehouses, saucer-shaped robots are already transporting shelves back and forth, which makes the picking processes even more efficient. For complete automation, however, robots would have to be able to grip products of various sizes and shapes, which has not yet been possible. But Amazon has already bought robot companies and is working flat out to completely replace human labor.

What effects does the digitized division of labor have on employees?

You have to turn your head off completely in order to be able to carry out the extremely monotonous activities for eight hours. The performance requirements are enormous: a picker has to take around two products per minute from the shelves and place them in a small plastic tub. He runs computer-controlled through the warehouse and is constantly monitored, because the data from the hand scanner is available to the superiors at all times. An above-average number of Amazon employees suffer from mental illness, which we attribute to the monotonously controlled processes, among other things. The Amazon bosses have reacted to this according to their interests: They distribute health premiums so that people go to work sick.

Do the employees get off better in terms of pay?

Amazon doesn't pay the cheapest salaries in Germany, that has to be said. You can live on an hourly wage of ten to twelve euros - if you have a family, it becomes more difficult. At Amazon, a high degree of flexibility in terms of the number of employees is crucial, as the order volumes fluctuate greatly. Around 15 percent of the workforce have part-time jobs and 20 percent are temporary, usually for a year. For the Christmas season, 100 percent seasonal workers are added to manage the sales peaks for two months. Amazon has specifically set up its locations in structurally weak areas with high unemployment. There, workers without any real qualifications can find work.

So Amazon is creating new jobs. What do you criticize about it?

We think it's good that Amazon is creating new jobs. But we defend ourselves against a corporate philosophy that in principle ignores trade unions and hardly pays taxes due to a nested company structure, although the infrastructure of the locations is usually paid for by municipalities or federal states. If Amazon hardly pays taxes, there will be no funds in the health and pension systems to pay for the damage caused by poor working conditions.

What does that mean, “Amazon ignores unions on principle”?

Amazon Refuses to Negotiate Collective Bargaining with Verdi; the group wants to decide on the working conditions alone. The management claims to fulfill the wishes of the employees without ever negotiating with a collective advocacy group. There is an apparent looseness and cheerfulness; the bosses are used and are happy to talk face to face. In reality, the idea behind this is that you can do what you want with the individual. So we only have to strike: If the flow of deliveries is disrupted, Amazon inevitably has to respond to the interests of the workforce.

This week you went on strike in locations in North Rhine-Westphalia, Bavaria, Hesse and Saxony. What are you doing with your labor disputes?

Work is regularly stopped in seven of the nine locations in Germany. In the meantime, almost a third of the Amazon workforce in this country is unionized. This is remarkable in view of the high proportion of employees with part-time or fixed-term contracts. They only have another period of employment if they are hardworking and stick to the rules. For some years now, our strikes have not only been publicly effective, but have also been economically successful: Today we can stop work from the shift by means of signs from shop stewards among the employees. Thanks to these process disruptions, which are unpredictable for Amazon, we have achieved several wage increases in recent years.

Why have you not been able to press the top management into collective bargaining so far?

Our problem is that we are dealing with a global titan: If German locations shut down, Amazon can outsource deliveries to Poland or the Czech Republic within two to three hours. The locations there serve exclusively for the supplementary supply of the German market. If German locations go on strike, it is quite possible that the drilling machine ordered was shipped from Poland - the customer will not notice any difference. We can best put pressure on Amazon if our German labor dispute turns into a European one. That is why we work with the unions wherever Amazon has locations and strive for the same standards for all European locations.

Do your members understand the need for solidarity across borders?

You understand that, and I am very happy about it. At the German locations, we have a very international atmosphere with up to 50 nations represented. Some even go to Poland on their own and meet Polish employees there. In doing so, they notice that they have the same interests, work under similar conditions and are dependent on each other for a successful labor dispute. I am definitely optimistic; our employees are combative and sometimes even want to strike more than we would like.