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Amazon denies outbreaks at German warehouses

May 26, 2020

Two virus outbreaks have now been traced to Amazon warehouses in Germany. The company says it has introduced over one hundred new safety measures, which a major workers’ union says is still too little, too late.

Amazon Logo
Image: picture-alliance/Geisler/C. Hardt

In a time when many sectors of the economy have been left devastated, online shopping has logged record-breaking returns as people have been faced with no other way to procure certain products. Retail giant Amazon has fared particularly well, with profits rising a staggering $46 billion (42 billion euros) in the first quarter of 2020, earning $75 billion in the first three months of the year compared to $35.8 billion during the same period in 2019. The company's shares have hit their highest-ever value.

Amazon Germany hails its workers as "heroes" who have helped supply the country with necessary goods during a nationwide lockdown. However, despite a promise of wage increases from CEO Jeff Bezos — currently the richest man in the world — workers have not seen a penny of the company's staggering new profits. Moreover, it has emerged that the conditions at the company's colossal warehouses may be putting employees at risk, with many of those who have fallen ill the very people who sort and package goods that enable others to stay home in safety.

Read more: European online shopping habits during Corona lockdown

On Tuesday, it became public that 53-68 cases of COVID-19 were traced to the Amazon warehouse in the town of Winsen in the western state of Lower Saxony. At least another seven have been discovered at another location in the city of Pforzheim in southern Germany.

Amazon protests
German labor unions have long been protesting working conditions at Amazon warehousesImage: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach

Amazon under fire

For years, Amazon warehouses around the world have come under fire for their inhumane working conditions. Workers' every task is timed by the electronic scanner workers use to locate items, leading to them being penalized for small delays; their breaks are notoriously short, older workers are expected to spend the same 8-10 hours running around on their feet as their much-younger colleagues, and the company actively suppresses attempts by workers to unionize, punishing those who go public with their grievances.

Since the coronavirus crisis began, Amazon has seen dozens of strikes and an International Workers' Day boycott on May 1, which included Germany. However, the retail behemoth disputes that the conditions in its warehouses led to the outbreak in Winsen.  "There was no real outbreak," Amazon claimed in response to a DW request for comment.

But the company's response jars with the fact that any rapid and unusual spread of disease is considered an outbreak. Just recently in slaughterhouses across Germany, similar incidents with dozens of cases prompted a much more strict and swift response.

Read more: Modern slavery at the heart of German slaughterhouse outbreak

Amazon floated the idea that Winsen could be a "hotspot" with a lot of coronavirus infections, but this was not borne out by the official data from its county, Harburg. According to government figures, the area of over 250,000 inhabitants has had 531 cases total since the pandemic began, 53-68 of which can be traced back to the Amazon warehouse. Of the total, 491 have been cured and 13 have died. That leaves 21 active cases, far below the 50 cases per 100,000 people that Germany considers the threshold for a COVID-19 "hotspot".

"Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our workers. We are doing everything in our power to protect them as much as possible," Amazon told DW, adding that it has implemented a raft of safety measures including mandatory face masks, closing its cafeteria, adding more shuttles to the premises so that fewer workers travel on each bus, creating "one-way" walkways throughout the building, and mandatory temperature checks for each employee as they arrive at the building.

Union says some measures make things worse

However, according to workers' union Verdi, not only are many of these regulations too little, too late — some of them actually increase the health risks to employees and make their already miserable working conditions even worse.

Read more: Workers' rights in Germany

"In Poland, for example," a Verdi spokeswoman told DW, "employees at an Amazon warehouse have had to sue the company after a woman couldn't breathe under her mask and died." The woman, like many others, was not offered an alternative or allowed to stay home without fear of being fired.

"In Winsen, yes they have more shuttle buses — but there are still big crowds of employees who have to stand close together and wait for the next bus to arrive… the "one-way" walkways make it harder to get around the building and make workers' already short breaks even shorter…They have also said that the changing rules have to be clear and transparent, and that pressure to work quickly at the cost of their own well-being is even higher than it was."

Moreover, the union said, early in the pandemic, when many of the cases at the Winsen warehouse occurred, workers were offered a bonus for showing up — encouraging the ill to come to work regardless of how they felt or if the risk they might pose to colleagues. Workers' groups have also had to intervene multiple times as Amazon appeared to be using the pandemic to impose higher surveillance and more unnecessary restrictions on its employees' lives, including the use of facial recognition technology.

Will Amazon face the same reckoning as the meat industry?

After four major coronavirus outbreaks were traced back to slaughterhouses across Germany, lawmakers have finally begun addressingdecades-long complaints about working conditions and the treatment of mostly foreign workers in meat processing plants. It remains to be seen if the same kind of regulations will come for Amazon, a company known for its heavy-handed lobbying in one of the few industries actually adding jobs during a crisis that has driven many national governments, including Germany's, to constantly weigh the risks to citizens' health against the risks of an increasingly stagnating economy.

Finding an edge in the coronavirus

Elizabeth Schumacher
Elizabeth Schumacher Elizabeth Schumacher reports on gender equity, immigration, poverty and education in Germany.