Jeff Bezos Isn’t as Generous as You Think
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Amazon.com Inc.’s decision this week to raise its minimum hourly pay is bizarrely limited to workers in the U.S. and the U.K. — even though employees in some of the e-commerce giant’s other big markets have been far more vocal in demanding better pay and conditions.
It may go against CEO Jeff Bezos’s capitalist instincts, but what Amazon needs to offer its workers is a global, company-wide deal pegging minimum pay to a multiple of the national poverty level of the countries in which it operates. It also needs to make working conditions more humane, and give employees a degree of influence on how its fulfillment centers operate.
Low hourly rates aren’t the only thing some workers don’t like about Amazon. When employees in Bad Hersfeld, Germany, formed the first picket line outside a fulfillment center in 2013, their complaints were largely the same as today: a high-pressure environment in which blue-collar workers are under constant surveillance; a workplace where the tiniest pauses are punished, conversations discouraged, and reprimands quick. They also complained of harsh quotas and being unable to take a proper toilet break.
But German and other European Amazon workers need a pay raise just as much as those in the U.S. and Britain. Blue-collar employees, who make up most of Amazon’s workforce of about 18,000 people in Germany, take home 1,400 to 2,400 euros a month, according to Glassdoor. A typical worker makes 12.23 euros ($14) an hour. At 2,000 euros a month, an Amazon worker earns about twice the official poverty level. That’s actually worse than what the company is promising U.S. workers from Nov. 1: At $15 an hour, a full-time job should bring in $31,200 a year — or about 2.6 times the current poverty level.
Germany isn’t the only big European economy where Amazon workers have protested. The latest wave of walkouts and work-to-rule protests, timed to coincide with its Prime Day shopping bonanza, also hit Spain and Poland — a country with tough anti-strike laws where Amazon has expanded in part as a hedge against its German labor troubles.
Amazon has long had an aversion to working with unions. In the U.S. and the U.K., it has successfully fought off recognizing them. It’s harder in some western European countries; in France, for example, an industry-level collective agreement is mandatory. In Spain, it can be softened with an employee council’s consent. This year, for the first time, Amazon signed a specific agreement with Italian unions. The deal stipulates that night shifts will be voluntary and the rate of pay for them will increase by as much as 25 percent.
Ver.di, however, has been so far unsuccessful in its five-year campaign for a collective pay agreement with Amazon. The company, which says its remuneration is at the higher end of the scale for logistics workers in Europe, has offered raises of between 2 percent and 2.7 percent — but the union wants more.
Stefanie Nutzenberger, a member of Ver.di’s governing board, this week called for Bezos to give workers more long-term security, legally binding wage increases, and for the monitoring of employees to cease.
This stance makes it difficult for the e-retailer to appear generous and progressive by offering a unilateral pay increase in Germany like in the U.S. and Britain. That could be one reason why such an offer isn’t on the cards. All Amazon is promising is to check into the situation outside those two countries.
My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Shira Ovide has described the wage increase in the English-speaking countries as a reputation-enhancing move. But if Bezos simply extended it to Germany and other countries where Amazon workers are more organized — and where they have been demanding more for years — the public relations strategy would, almost certainly, have failed. Bezos has been generous to employees in two countries where organized labor pressure hasn’t worked; but he should make a more comprehensive offer globally.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.