The Amazon Archipelago

by | 15 Feb 2013

Amazon facility Bad Hersfeld

On Wednesday night prime German television channel ARD broadcast undercover reportage1 concerning the treatment of foreign workers at Amazon’s huge distribution warehouse near Bad Hersfeld in central Germany. State parliamentarians called the report “unspeakable”, “shocking”, “beyond the pale”, and the Left Party spokesperson stated:

We call on the state government to carry out promptly and with all at its disposal checks of the complainant’s social security fraud, the use of an apparent neo-Nazi security company through Amazon and the inhumane placement in a so-called “resort”

Bad Hersfeld backs up against the old border with East Germany at the point, the Fulda Gap, which the US determined was the prime strategic entry point for Soviet forces in any invasion of Europe. As a consequence this wooded-up country became a backwater of barbed wire and checkpoints after the war.  It is here that Amazon has had built one of its massive distribution centres for Germany, and it is here that undercover reporters infiltrated. Watch in German here.

What they found, according to the report, is effectively a labour camp for foreign workers. These workers are drawn from across Europe, with the reporters being placed with Spanish men and women, ex-nurses, secretaries, ostensibly on short-term work experience holidays.  They are housed in obsolete holiday camps in tiny rooms some 17km from the warehouse, and are required to take a limited number of buses at any hour to travel to work. If the bus is (illegally) overcrowded, they must walk, at this time of year through snow. One of the women interviewed ended up in hospital. Conversely, if they are dismissed from work early, they must stand in the cold waiting until the bus takes them back to their digs.

There is no minimum wage in Germany, and these workers are paid very little. Indeed, their pay is almost entirely expended on the food they are herded in to eat at the rundown staff canteen. Their entire lives are trapped in the middle of nowhere between the poles of the “resort” and the warehouse.  There are no public transport links.

Control is absolute: the workers are under 24 hour surveillance. They work under guard, they eat at the guards’ behest. They travel under guard. They are put into and taken from their rooms by guards. If they are not ready on time, either because they are asleep or in the shower, the guards enter the cramped quarters to hurry them on their way.

And particularly shocking, the reporters involved allege that the black bomber jackets and leather boots of these guards are not simple affectations, but back-up evidence of alleged links to the neo-Nazi scene. When the reporters openly attempted to film the warehouse from a public road, the crew were attacked by the guards and the undercover team had later to be rescued from their dorms by the police.

Just one island in the Amazon archipelago. In Pennsylvania in 2011 workers at the Allentown warehouse reported strenuous conditions in brutal heat and summary terminations for illnesses such as breast cancer.2 Similar conditions were reported at Amazon UK’s Marston Gate facility.3 Amazon actively opposes unionisation, with the former GPMU union saying its drive for recognition at the Milton Keynes, UK, facility was met with dismissals and closed, captive meetings with staff.

Yes capital must control time to make profit, but, if we may conjecture, it is an iron law in this global age without innovation of plant that every remaining temporal variation in the rate of profit is accompanied by a spatially varying primitive accumulation. Capital, even in the internet age, must touch down somewhere, preferably a somewhere where regulatory niceties can be dispensed with, in favour of a quick and brutal acquisition of power. And vice versa: every spatial variation in primitive accumulation is accompanied by temporally varying rate profit. Here the victims of austerity in Spain for example have been impelled to the middle of Germany to provide cheap labour for the internet economy.

Unsurprisingly, Amazon have been quick to point out that the security company involved was not hired directly by them, and it seems that the workers too have been taken on under agency contracts. It is possibly also the case that the hostels are subcontracted several times over.  It has since responded that it is  looking into the claims and will not tolerate wrongdoing in its name, but it seems that justice and responsibility are out of stock.

Ida Ince is an independent researcher in critical legal finance and has previously worked for many years in international finance.

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1 Comment

  1. The first of the European Export Processing Zones?


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