Photo by Lilly Freytag
Amazon.de just announced their most successful Christmas season ever – 20 percent more orders than the year before! How do they do it?
To understand their success, we need to talk about Befristung. This term refers to limited employment contracts. Whereas a normal contract ends when you quit or get fired, a befristeter Vertrag expires at a set date.
Theoretically, this is for someone working at an ice cream shop – no need to employ them in the winter. But Amazon gives a good example of how Befristung is used to put a different spin on the concept.
Just a few weeks ago, there were 1250 workers with limited contracts at the Amazon warehouse in Brieselang, 40km from Berlin. Their contracts ended on December 31 – a mere 35 of them got permanent employment.
At any rate, this means the massive "Fulfillment Center" (Amazon-speak for their warehouses) has less than 300 full-time workers. Obviously Amazon has a bump in sales before the holidays. But it's not like they close the shutters in January and don't reopen until October. Some of these workers have been befristet for three months, then for six months, then for another six months, now for one more month. Why shouldn't they get an unlimited contract? Is Amazon not a large enough company to sustain full-time contracts?
Amazon will start hiring the next batch of temporary workers for the next sales bump before Easter. These workers will also get contracts for one, three or six months – anything below a total of two years, since by German law all temporary contracts are transformed go permanent after 24 months.
"Everyone is scared,” said one Amazon worker to me (he also has a limited contract and doesn’t want to give a name), “since most people don't know if they'll have a job much longer.” No one really knows when they will be out of work and he says everyone feels pressure to work harder, never take sick leave and do overtime.
At the end of December, more than 900 workers in Brieselang learned they were out of a job. This includes members of the Betriebsrat (works council) who were elected to represent the workforce. By law, they can't be fired. But technically, they're not getting fired, their contracts are just running out.
Some workers aren't accepting this. "Wir wollen bleiben!" (We want to stay) is the slogan they've printed on red shirts. Some of them are people who have been working at Amazon for a year or more and need to support their families. And remember: Amazon gets public subsidies because of its promises to create jobs.
Befristung isn't just something that affects lowly manual laborers, either. Up to 90 percent of contracts for researchers at university are on a temporary basis. Even up to 90 percent of new contracts in government ministries are befristet.
So the strike at Amazon for a collective bargaining agreement, which would guarantee the workers some basic rights, is in part about a question of how a powerful company is standing behind its employees. You don't need to boycott Amazon, as Seymour Gris suggests. But why don't you write a product review after your next Amazon purchase and ask about the company providing permanent employment?