Amazon workers in Germany launch strike over wages

German union has organized short strikes this year to try to force retailer to accept collective bargaining agreements

A worker packs a box at Amazon's logistics center in Graben near Augsburg, Germany on Monday.
Michaela Rehle/Reuters

Hundreds of workers at in Germany have walked off the job in an effort, times to coincide with the busy pre-Christmas period, to pressure the American online retailer to settle a months-long dispute over pay. 

The ver.di union said Monday that several hundred workers were staging one-day strikes at Amazon’s logistics centers in Leipzig, Bad Hersfeld and Graben.

The German union has organized a series of actions this year to try to force Amazon to accept collective bargaining agreements in the mail order and retail industry as benchmarks for workers' pay at Amazon's German distribution centers. 

"We demand from Amazon that they sign a labor agreement with us based on the regulations of the retail industry," said union representative Heiner Reimann. 

"This would mean that Amazon employees starting new in the company would earn about 7,000 euros ($9,635) more per year. We also demand humane working conditions and salaries which allow for decent living conditions," Reimann added.

However, Amazon has maintained that it regards staff at its centers in the cities of Bad Hersfeld and Leipzig as logistics workers and that they receive above-average pay by the standards of that industry.

Amazon's German country head Ralf Kleber said Amazon pays warehouse workersstarting at 9.55 euros ($13.14) an hour, and does not think the more generous terms of the mail order and retail sector are justified.

Collective wage agreements

Amazon employs 9,000 warehouse staff in Germany plus 14,000 seasonal workers at nine distribution centers. A company spokeswoman told Al Jazeera in a statement Monday that 1,115 fulfillment center workers "chose to not come to work today," but added "Amazon did not see any impact on customer shipments."

Earlier, the ver.di union said up to 700 workers joined the strike in Amazon's logistic center in Bad Hersfeld, plus more than 200 in Leipzig. For the first time, the union also called a strike in Graben, where it said it had a very good turnout. 

"The Amazon system is characterized by low wages, permanent performance pressure and short-term contracts," ver.di board member Stefanie Nutzenberger said in a statement. 

Currently, Germany does not have a national minimum wage, but rather relies on collective wage agreements that govern things like minimum pay. The agreements are negotiated between employers and employees on a sector-by-sector and region-by-region basis. 

The government, in turn, then endorses the deals, making them legally applicable to all workers in that particular sector.

Starting in 2015, a minimum wage of 8.50 euros ($11.70) will be introduced, but will provide for exceptions for collective wage agreements already in place through the end of 2016. However, from 2017, the minimum wage will be mandatory throughout Germany.

Amazon holds firm

A delegation of German workers will also protest at Amazon's headquarters in Seattle, helped by U.S. unions. In addition, workers in Amazon's center in the German town of Werne will strike on Tuesday, ver.di said.

"It was not planned to shut the company down. All we want to do is show that we are many, that we are getting more and more support and that we have a lot of patience and we are waiting for you at the negotiating table," Reimann said. 

But Kleber said the company had no intention of bowing to pressure from striking workers and was more worried about bad weather hurting Christmas deliveries, he told Reuters in an interview last month. 

Meanwhile, Amazon has recently announced it would build three new logistics centers in Poland and two in the Czech Republic, prompting speculation that it could seek to shift work across the border from strike-hit centers in Germany. 

But Kleber said Amazon expected to keep expanding in Germany, including eventually delivering fresh groceries.

Amazon said that rather than deal with the issue through the union group, the company felt "it is best to work directly with our employees, not through an intermediary."

Al Jazeera and wire services. Philip J. Victor contributed to this report. 

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