Frank Bsirske, the chairman of German trade union Verdi, spoke out publicly against three of Germany's biggest discount retailers on Monday and criticized their working conditions and perceived lack of employee rights.
Discount supermarkets Lidl and Aldi are among those accused of compromising their workers rights.
Choosing International Women's Day to launch his scathing criticism of the working practices of German discount supermarkets Aldi and Lidl and no-frills chemist chain Schlecker, Frank Bsirske named and shamed those companies considered by his union to rule their empires with iron fists and a culture of fear, accusing them of using "intimidation as a commercial model."
The timing of his outburst was carefully considered. According to the Verdi trade union boss about 100,000 German women work in the 10,500 Schlecker shops, 3,500 Aldis and 2,500 Lidl branches nationwide, mostly in part-time positions and mostly in conditions unacceptable in this modern age.
Verdi chief Frank Bsirske
"The success of the discounters bathes in the sun," said Bsirske (photo) at a protest against working conditions outside a Schlecker outlet in Hanau on Monday. "But the terms of employment for the employee remains in shadow." Accusing the discount giants of operating like the industrial tyrants of the 19th century, Bsirske added that rate of pay contracts had been ignored, resulting in staff wages under the national average and hours of overtime that often go unpaid.
Talk of unions met with threats
Those employees considering joining a union had been intimidated out of doing so, with many companies actively blocking any action by works committees throughout their branches, the Verdi chairman declared. "Threats are not isolated cases in the climate of fear," he said, calling the treatment of many workers "degrading."
Discounters command a 30 percent share of the German retail market but may find their control slipping if Verdi carries out its threats to take action against those companies it sees as being the main offenders. Leading the union's hit-list is Lidl, the German supermarket sector's second largest concern.
Big names facing the "last resort"
According to the union, Lidl has refused every collaboration with Verdi, completely banning trade unionists throughout its empire. Verdi has stated that, if Lidl refuses to admit organized works committee elections in its establishments and assigned branches, the union will be forced to apply its "last resort." That could be a referral to the Federal Board of Trade and a subsequent investigation.
A similar fate could await Aldi whose southern division is also accused of suppressing union activity throughout its branches. Attempts to create committee initiatives for the rights of workers have been "strangled by massive pressure," according to Bsirske, even in central offices where the number of employees is much higher than on the shop floor.
Employees under stress and suspicion
However, while Verdi is concerned about the lack of union representation in discount businesses, Bsirske said that the state of employment conditions is worse than the massive impediment to works committee initiatives in all three named discounters. Lack of adequate numbers of staff, extended working hours and frequent loneliness in stores has caused stress and achievement pressure in many employees.
According to the union, some employees have also complained about frequent controls at the cash registers, about searches of handbags and lockers and about "house visits" by superiors after a staff member has called in sick or after a union engagement.
Verdi also claims the price war between the discount chains is causing more and more pressure on their staff members with little or no extra reward for the increased workload and stress.
With Verdi members currently picketing discount store branches and distributing leaflets to staff members, the war of words seems set to continue.