Jörn Boewe – “A movement will defeat Amazon”

Interview with Agnieszka Mróz who works for Amazon in Poland. Germany in particular is supplied from there.

Jörn Boewe is a freelance journalist at the Berlin press agency work in progress. He mainly deals with topics around union organising at the workplace as a response to the neo-liberal upheavals in the working world.

The interview first appeared in German in the weekly newspaper Der Freitag


Agnieszka Mróz has been working in Poland at the Amazon warehouse near Poznan, a city with 550,000 inhabitants, about halfway between Warsaw and Berlin, since 2014. She works as a packer, is a delegate of the grassroots union OZZ Inicjatywa Pracownicza at Amazon and is a member of the Amazon Workers International coordinating committee. She was also a Polish delegate to a workers’ body negotiating an agreement with Amazon to establish a European Works Council. In her union she is also involved in building the feminist movement in the working class, which actively participated in the recent pro-choice mass mobilisations.

Q: Ms. Mróz, in 2014 Amazon opened its first logistic centre in Poland. The company now operates nine such facilities, with the opening of a tenth in Swiebodzin not far from the German border city Frankfurt/Oder planned for this year. At the same time, there is as yet no Polish Amazon sales platform on the Internet. What does Amazon actually do in Poland?

A: We have been working for the amazon.de platform for six years. Amazon now has 18,000 thousand permanent employees in Poland. In addition, there are thousands of temporary workers and about 10,000 seasonal workers during the Christmas crunch. Until now, they have sent all parcels to Germany or to other European customers who order via Amazon’s German platforn amazon.de. At the end of January  Amazon announced that they want to open a Polish site. We don’t know yet how this will affect the number of employees and working conditions.

Are there differences between the dispatch centres in Poland and those in Germany?

The logistic centres in Poland are bigger than those in Germany. My warehouse POZ1 officially employed more than 10,000 people last December. It is an old type warehouse, with a traditional picking tower. Amazon has different types of warehouses in Poland: the one in Kiva has robots for large and heavy items, one of the few cross-dock sorting facilities where goods are sorted and shipped to different warehouses in Europe, a huge customer returns department, a letterpress printing plant, a T-shirt printing plant, etc.

What are the working conditions like in the Polish dispatch centres?

There are three main problems: low wages, high pressure on the pace of work, and precarious employment. Improvements in these areas have been a demand in the ongoing collective dispute. One stage of this dispute was a strike ballot in 2019, where more than 5,000 workers voted in favour of strike action.

Amazon’s expansion into Poland is linked to low labour costs. Level 1 employees earn 20 zloty per hour gross (4.44 euros). This is just above the minimum wage, which has been 18.30 zlotys since 2021, and makes an average of about 600 euros net per month.

Those who start at Amazon initially work for up to one year through a temporary employment agency, such as Adecco or Randstad. The contract initially runs for only two weeks. Those who work too slowly or get sick are out right after that. Those who work quickly, behave well and don’t get sick are then “retrained”. Amazon first offers them a contract for a month, then for a year and only then for an indefinite period. In total, you can work for two and a half years on temporary contracts. This makes it very difficult to get organised. After a few years of work, many people leave of their own accord as soon as they find another job. They are physically exhausted and fed up with the monotonous work and constant supervision.

Is there anything you can do about it?

As a union we are in constant dispute over performance evaluation. We managed to suspend the repellent system of monitoring and evaluating workers’ performance for a while, later Amazon brought it back. In 2020, Amazon had to suspend the feedback system again. It is a never-ending conflict between us and Amazon. Some of our members have successfully sued in the labour courts against dismissals for not meeting standards. We were able to use these judgements against Amazon.

How has the Corona pandemic affected working conditions?

While there were government bans on leaving one’s house without reason in Poland, shopping centres and schools were closed, Amazon warehouses were open all the time. We went to work despite sick leave. Amazon in Poland has never officially stated how many employees became ill.

Under pressure from workers’ actions around the world, Amazon introduced a series of hygiene measures, and they looked similar everywhere, including in Poland. Nevertheless, it cannot be prevented that people meet in the company buses, in changing rooms, in the narrow alleys on the Picktower.

But while these measures were introduced equally in all warehouses in Europe, Amazon treated European workers differently when it came to wage subsidies. In most countries, Amazon offered a two-euro bonus per hour, but in Poland only one euro. In 2020, Amazon also – for the first time since 2015 – did not raise the basic wage, despite the huge profits we produced for them. All this has caused a lot of discontent.

How did this manifest itself?

The most impressive action was when workers protested at a warehouse near Wroclaw in November. The forklift drivers (including our members) stopped work for an hour, made a concert with their horns and demanded higher bonuses. Workers wore waistcoats with a handmade slogan on the back: “2,000 zloty for everyone”. On 15 December, as part of the #MakeAmazonPay campaign, there was a three-hour gate blockade at a dispatch centre near Wroclaw. 80 lorriess were unable to leave or enter the warehouse while our members distributed leaflets among the workforce.

How is Amazon seen as an employer and company by the Polish public?

Amazon does not have a good reputation in Poland, the working conditions are considered bad. Certainly, our activities as trade unions over the years have helped to actively bring the problems to the public’s attention: through rallies in front of the dispatch centres, but also in front of labour agencies, through press conferences in front of labour courts when our members have won court cases, through conferences and debates. All this has helped to put pressure on the company.

How does your union work in this situation?

Our trade union Inicjatywa Pracownicza (“Workers’ Initiative”) has 750 members and is the largest trade union in the Amazon Fulfillment Poland company. We have 23 shop stewards in different dispatch centres. In recent years we have worked closely with the other trade union organisation, such as Solidarność, in collective disputes. We have negotiated and organised the strike ballot together with the management, talked to the media together, etc.

In 2020, we carried out a variety of actions: from collecting signatures in March on a petition that was also signed by Amazon workers in New York, to collecting and publishing videos and photos from workers inside the warehouses of situations that endangered their health, to leaf-letting on “Black Friday”, countless talks with the health and safety authorities and union health and safety inspections in the warehouses. We have regularly provided legal support to our members when they have been penalised for disciplinary reasons or for taking too long a break.

Amazon’s latest chicanery: With productivity feedbacks suspended, they can no longer fire workers for this reason and now threaten them if they don’t use their hand scanners regularly. If they see in the monitoring system that workers have not scanned items for a few minutes here and there during a ten-hour shift, they are called in for a disciplinary meeting for “taking extra breaks”. We think this is ridiculous and we are helping those affected to defend themselves against these warnings. We have also sued a company board member for insufficient consultation with the union on health and safety measures, inspired by a similar strategy by our friends at the Sud Soldiare union in France. And we supported grassroots actions such as the strike by forklift truck drivers. It has been a very intense year, both in terms of local action and international cooperation as part of Amazon Workers International.

The industrial action of Amazon workers in Germany, which has been going on since 2013, is closely linked to the name of Christian Krähling – the strike activist and trade unionist from Bad Hersfeld who died unexpectedly last December. On 21 February, Amazon workers and friends of Christian in many countries  remembered his life in an internet memorial event. What did Christian mean to you and your trade union activities in Poland?

Christian was the most important link between organised labour in Poland and Germany. We became real friends and his death was heartbreaking for all IP members who knew him personally. After his death, workers took a photo together with the slogan “Rest in peace, Christian”. He visited us in Poland many times, coming to Amazon Workers International (AWS) meetings, but also to discussions, demonstrations, and unofficial meetings. We talked to each other almost every fortnight within the AWI committee, reported on local struggles in different European countries, looked for common ground and ideas for joint actions.

Christian always stressed that we must see the common interest as workers in different countries and not focus on the differences that divide us. We were endlessly inspired by his strong commitment to organising and building workers’ power in the factories and mobilising colleagues for confrontational action against management.

Following this approach, we are determined to build an international Amazon workers’ movement that will defeat Amazon. Christian will always be remembered as an important founder of this movement. He used to say: “We didn’t even dream in Bad Hersfeld of getting to the point we are now when we started organising in 2011 with a group of 15, 20 people.” Today we have a huge network with organised Amazon workers, trade unions, supporters, journalists and also artists from all over the world who are working with a lot of commitment to the cause.

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