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Is Amazon Exploiting The Long-Term Unemployed In Germany?

Amazon is using free labor: unemployed Germans receiving state benefits. The German trade union Ver.di smells scandal while the American e-commerce giant and public job centers insist that the practice is the best way to match the unemployed with the righ

Is Amazon Exploiting The Long-Term Unemployed In Germany?
Stefan von Borstel

Some talk about a rip-off, an outrageous scandal. Others speak in terms of "perspectives for the long-term unemployed" and a "successful project." They are all sounding off on the same subject: some 1,500 unemployed people who, through job centers, found work as unpaid interns at the mail-order firm Amazon in the Nordrhein-Westfalen region of Germany.

The company wanted to trial-test the workers to see if they could be offered regular jobs. Most of the interns worked at the Unna logistics center, others in Rheinberg. However for the Ver.di trade union as well as Nordrhein-Westfalen's Social Democratic Minister of Labor, Guntram Schneider, the endeavor reeks of scandal.

"It is quite simply unacceptable for a firm to gain a competitive advantage by occupying state-subsidized workers," says the minister, adding that he has ordered an investigation into whether it is in fact illegal. Working for nothing should not exist in the 21st century, Schneider says, and should not be supported by local authorities.

The trade union's position is that Amazon is using a legal loophole and thus gaining an unfair competitive advantage, says Christiane Scheller of Ver.di's federal board, who noted that other mail-order firms do not have unpaid internships.

Scheller says Amazon has been on the union's radar for some time because of this and other labor practices. The U.S.-based e-commerce giant has no wage agreement in place in Germany, pays less than other mail-order firms, does not pay workers during holidays, offers no paid vacation, and two-thirds of personnel is employed on short-term contracts, the union claims. Workers are also monitored with hand scanners and can receive a warning if caught being "inactive" twice within a five-minute timeframe.

On the morning of his re-election as union chairman in Leipzig, Ver.di boss Frank Bsirske visited the Amazon dispatch center there and declared the situation "absolutely scandalous."

Scouting for "soft skills'

The local opposition party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), as well as the job centers and Amazon itself have justified the free employment policy. The Social Democratic minister "is giving an extremely successful jobs initiative a bad name," says an official with the Nordrhein-Westfalen CDU. Surely the minister must be familiar with the Federal Employment Agency's program to help reinsert the jobless in the permanent job market. Nationwide in 2011, according to the agency, over 330,000 people participated in similar training programs.

The agency's regional office in Düsseldorf refuted criticism leveled at the program as well, saying that legally those on benefits could undergo such training periods for up to a month. "What I would find scandalous is if we couldn't offer this option any longer," said Werner Marquis of the Düsseldorf office. He said it was a "sensible thing, a way to get those on benefits back into the work force."

The internship option gave Amazon the chance to see if the candidates – after long periods of joblessness – possessed necessary "soft skills' like punctuality, dependability, and flexibility. "It's a business, not a charity," says Marquis.

The practice also gave job-seekers a chance to see if they could handle relatively taxing physical work. "We follow-up to make sure the people really are hired," said the spokesman for the Federal Employment Agency. In one dispatch center, more than 90% were hired. "What more do we want?" Marquis asks.

He rejects criticism that the system enables Amazon to get free extra staff in the run-up to the holiday season; the internships in Nordrhein-Westfalen took place before the firm brought in additional seasonal workers in October, he says.

Amazon itself states: "We offer unskilled workers and the long-term unemployed a chance at a job, at getting back into the labor force." And the company adds that its goal is to give permanent employment to as many of the workers as possible.

Read the original article in German

photo - hellercom

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