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No bargain for workers: Amazon employees stage strikes during 'Prime Day' sales

Philippe Huguen, AFP | An Amazon employee seen working on April 11, 2015, in Lauwin-Planque in northern France.

Amazon employees across the world went on strike on Monday demanding better wages and working conditions as the retail giant launched its two-day “Amazon Prime” sale. In France, workers tried to block trucks from leaving a distribution centre.

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As Amazon launched its annual two-day global shopping offer known as Prime Day, employees of the Seattle-based online retail giant went on strike in Germany, the US and France.

Around 20 workers tried to block trucks coming to and from the online retailer’s distribution centre in the northern French city of Lauwin-Planque on Monday, disrupting deliveries while demanding better wages and working conditions. The move caused minor traffic jams in the area.

“We’re demanding better wages but most of all, we want better working conditions as well as recognition,” a CGT union representative, Khaled Bouchajra, told FRANCE 24. Although workers and unions are reacting to the retailer’s sales operation this week, they have been raising concerns over Amazon’s management for years.

“The work pressure is the same as for Christmas, but throughout the year, which is explosive,” added Bouchajra, who is an employee at Amazon’s Saran centre in central France.

Under constant pressure and surveillance

Union leaders also criticised temporary bans on paid leave that have been put in place. According to them, Amazon forbade workers from taking paid vacations during the three weeks around Prime Day.

“They have brutal techniques: You either accept them or you’re fired,” CFDT union representative for the Hauts-de-France northern region, Avisen Mahadoo, told FRANCE 24.

“We’re under constant pressure and surveillance. There are more and more colleagues who get sick and Amazon’s been sending people over to their homes to check if they really are sick and to minimise their illness,” Bouchajra said.

Absenteeism is a growing problem, he adds, putting even more pressure on the shoulders of other workers.

“If we make a single mistake, our hierarchy automatically sends us letters and calls meetings that could lead to dismissals,” he told FRANCE 24.

Amazon insists that there are no restrictions on employees’ paid leave and has tried to minimise the strikes in Lauwin-Planque, according to local newspaper la Voix du Nord. “Only 0.3 percent of 2,500 workers in this centre were on strike. And this is the only one in France to do so.”

“Strikes at Amazon’s centres have minimal impact, because when there is a social movement somewhere, the company is able to redirect orders elsewhere and simply bypass the strikers,” Bouchajra said.

Indeed, the company said in advance that the “Prime Day” strikes all over the world would not affect deliveries to customers.

'We’re humans, not robots'

Amazon’s management techniques are far from being exclusive to France, according to union representatives. Workers also staged strikes across Europe and the US on Monday.

In Germany, "well over 2,000 took part, which is more than we expected”, Verdi labour union spokesman Orhan Akman told AFP. In seven distribution centres across Germany, the retail giant’s staff went on strike under the motto, “No more discounts on our incomes.”

Germany is Amazon's second-largest market after the US.

In a statement on Monday, the company insisted it is fair to employees in Germany, adding that the wages it pays are "at the upper end of what is paid in comparable jobs".

Outside of continental Europe, protests were also planned at seven Amazon sites across the UK. GMB, the union for Amazon workers in the UK, claims some of their members "have to use plastic bottles to urinate in instead of going to the toilet" and that "pregnant women have been forced to stand for hours on end".

Accusations that are “simply not true”, the company has said in response.

Across the Atlantic, employees in Minnesota also tried to block trucks from coming in and out of distribution centres on Monday while waving signs reading, “We’re humans, not robots,according to CNN.

Amazon has been facing growing outrage over its labour practices since 2018. Around 50 strikes were organised in Europe, some timed and coordinated across several countries in a show of cross-border solidarity.

The company posted record profits of €3.2 billion in the first quarter of 2019 alone. But Amazon has rejected trade union demands for better salaries and dismissed proposals to strike a collective agreement on wages and work conditions.

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