Internationally famous retailer Amazon found itself embroiled in a scandal last week as a documentary accusing the company of working with a security firm linked to Neo-Nazi organizations aired on German television (you can watch it here, although you’ll have to brush up on your German skills first). The documentary highlighted abusive working conditions at three of the company’s distribution centers in Germany, putting Amazon on the carpet with a damning recitation of the human rights and legal violations committed by the company.
Employees of the firm, Hensel European Security Services (HESS — an acronym the documentary suggested was meant to be a reference to the infamous Rudolf Hess), wore black uniforms supplied by a company known to have connections to the Neo-Nazi scene and military-style haircuts clearly designed to frighten. In addition to walking the floor and performing routine tasks that fell under their job descriptions, they also searched the belongings and living quarters of temporary employees, many of whom were immigrants.
Herein lay some of the major concerns with the revelations about the company. Germany, like much of Europe, is experiencing a backlash against immigrants and people of color, in part because of economic contraction, and in part because of vicious anti-immigrant rhetoric from commentators who previously occupied the fringe, but are moving into the mainstream. Germany’s Neo-Nazi movement has been growing in size and aggression, a particularly loaded issue in a nation with very complex and draconian laws about displays of Neo-Nazi sentiment in light of the Holocaust. Many Germans were shocked and outraged by the conditions shown in the documentary, and their anger spread around the world.
In addition to the intimidation tactics designed to make workers feel uncomfortable and uneasy, Amazon may have engaged in direct labor violations as well. One worker claims she was fired after complaining about the security firm’s treatment of her and other employees, and Amazon may be paying seasonal workers less than it advertises. These violations merit closer investigation, especially in light of the fact that Amazon has been accused of labor violations at other European distribution and operating centers as well. Cheap goods can come at a high cost for workers, as this documentary illustrates, but it’s rare for the public to get a chance to see those costs.
In response to the bad publicity, Amazon hastily severed its ties with HESS and attempted to distance itself from the firm by saying it was a subcontractor hired by an employment agency, rather than a company Amazon worked with directly. Amazon also said it had a “zero tolerance” policy for harassment and intimidation, working hard to rehab its public image. It may have been successful, especially in light of the fact that many consumers would be very reluctant to give up the convenience and low prices at Amazon, but it highlights a growing issue across Europe as immigrants work as seasonal laborers in conditions that can be intimidating, unsafe, and certainly not comparable to those offered to white Europeans.
This story should be viewed as a warning bell, rather than an outlier incident.
Photo credit: hirotomo t