How does Amazon treat its employees? How does it try to prevent trade unions from operating? Why in Poland many collective disputes are being open – but strikes are very rare? Strajk talks to Magdalena Malinowska, an activist from the Workers’ Initiative. Magda was fired from her job on 9 November, even though, as trade union activist, she was protected by law. She and the union describe the accusations as completely absurd. The case will be taken to the labour court.
Two years ago I talked to the employees of Amazon warehouse in Sady near Poznan. The same one in which you worked until recently. I heard about the exhaustion, the constantly raised standards of work efficiency, the stress… How is it now?
In the meantime, the pandemic started, the work organization changed a bit… This probably became an inspiration for Amazon to turn the screw on its employees. Recently, the company unilaterally made changes to the work regulations, despite the opposition of both trade union organisations – ours and „Solidarność” (Solidarity trade union federation). After the changes it will be easier for it to monitor our pace of work: not only how many products we process per hour, but also with what frequency. We cannot have a break of more than 2-3 minutes in our activities. They want our work to be done in a constant rhythm, imposed by them. And we are not robots, for us working in a constant rhythm for 10 hours is very tiresome and even more monotonous than if we sometimes change this rhythm.
Amazon also threw out the infamous employee evaluation appendix, which describes how employees are evaluated for quality and pace of their work, and what they might face if they don’t meet the standards. As long as it was a part of work regulations, we had control over it and could try to stop changes introduced to the disadvantage of employees. For the last few years we have succeeded in doing that, which has been a great success. Now Amazon has thrown it out of the work rules to change it at will. We suspect the goal is to make working conditions worse.
All of these moves, in our opinion, are absolutely illegal and we intend to take them to court, but of course the case will take some time, and during that time Amazon will insist that the changes it has made are in force. It will enforce them. If it punishes an employee based on them, we will also go to court, although these cases will not end quickly either. Several cases of employees who were fired on the basis of Appendix No. 3, i.e. for not meeting the standards, are still pending. However, there are also cases in which settlements were reached and which we won, such as the case of Maciek Gorajski, who was reinstated by the court.
You also will face Amazon in court. You intend to prove that you were unlawfully fired from your job. The company accuses you of photographing or filming the dead body of an employee who died at the warehouse. What even happened there? Why did this man die at the working place?
There is no accident report yet, the case is still in the prosecutor’s office. Probably the details of the course of events will be given to the media only if they are established and if the family of the deceased will be allowed to talk about them. I was performing union activities in another place on that day. I went to the warehouse when I found out about the accident. I talked to the workers about what had happened. Later, when I was at work, people were still talking about it. Everyone is shocked at how Amazon treated that man.
This employee had complained the day before that he was working alone in a position where there should have been several people because the work could be extremely hard.
What was it about?
The job consisted of pushing a cart, on which heavy columns made of plastic boxes are collected and transported to another place. You have to keep moving, lift the weights, then push the heavy cart.
Those are the boxes from which we – I work in the same department – take out different objects, which we then pack. One empty box is put into the previous one, creating a column, which has to be taken away. If the person who collects and transports the empty boxes does not do it at the right pace, other employees literally surround themselves with boxes, which is against the rules of health and safety. It is dangerous, you can trip over these empty boxes, the escape route is blocked, not to mention the fact that you work harder. That is why the person responsible for taking the boxes away has to do it fast enought. Very fast. Sometimes there is no time to breathe.
The company didn’t see a problem with there not being enough employees for the position?
As unions, we reported earlier, also at the Health and Safety Committee, that there is a problem, that there should be more of these workers than there usually are. Usually there are several of them. On that tragic day, there was only one. He asked the company management for support – he did not get it.
The workers I spoke to said that when he was unwell, complaining of chest pain, the managers did not instruct him to sit down and wait for medical help. They told him to go to the medical station. He got down from the floor and walked through the warehouse, which is large. When he got there, it was too late. He could not be saved.
First aid rules say clearly: a person who reports shortness of breath and chest tightness he/she must not move! There are elevators in our warehouse. However, he was told to take the stairs by himself because taking the elevator would be „nonn-safety”. Management was simply incompetent. They care about safety so much that they sent an employee, who was near death, down the stairs alone because Amazon’s rules and job cards said riding the elevator was „non-safety.” They blindly implemented what was written – instead of thinking. In my opinion, they are only trained to control us so that we comply with exactly everything Amazon demands.
There was another similar story. It also ended with the death of an employee.
What happened then?
This lady worked in the pick department: she collected merchandise from the shelves. She worked on the third floor. The workers told me that something bad started happening to her. She couldn’t breathe. On the upper floors there is nothing but shelves of goods. So she had to go down the stairs from the third floor to ground zero. There, however, no one gave her first aid, witnesses reported to me. They were waiting for a medic who had to come from the other end of the warehouse. And he arrived too late. He resuscitated her, to no avail.
Let’s go back to the previous situation. You get a signal from your colleagues that there’s been an accident at the warehouse. You arrive there. What happened next?
I went to the staff, to ask what exactly had happened and where. I didn’t know at the time that this man was dead. Earlier I had received information that yes, medical help had been given, but it was not clear that he had died. I found out on the spot that he was at the medics’, and that unauthorised people were not allowed there. Incidentally, I wonder if, as a social labour inspector, I shouldn’t be an authorised person after all… however, according to Amazon, this doesn’t actually entitle me to anything. So I went to HR to ask what kind of accident had occurred and who was on the accident committee. I wanted to be on the committee myself.
An argument broke out between the HR and Occupational Health and Safety department people and me. Because they went on with their business, as if nothing had ever happened… I heard „Why are you here? There is no break, why aren’t you at work? We will inform the entitled people about everything if we see such a need’. Life at Amazon just went on! Of course, I was not admitted to the post-accident committee.
I went outside the warehouse, called a lawyer to consult on what to do in such a situation. I also talked to the man who was included in the post-accident committee. He, too, asked Amazon to have me on it because I had been in the union for several years, had more experience. For him this was new stuff, he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to handle such a difficult case. Then we were informed that there is a GDPR law and therefore I cannot advise my less experienced colleague, we cannot exchange any information about the accident. In our opinion, this is nonsense – of course, there is data that cannot be passed on without consent, concerning health or personal issues of employees, but general matters, concerning working conditions?! If we cannot talk about that either, then our union activity is no longer possible.
You say: Amazon thinks that being a social labour inspector doesn’t actually entitle you to anything. Were any other initiatives of yours, aimed at improving safety or labour conditions, blocked as well?
Yes, and quite recently. We were going to audit the plant on health and safety issues. We are already at the holiday peak, the peak of orders. During this time, more is being demanded of us, we are often working overtime, there are a lot of new people in the warehouse, every space is being used, sometimes not in accordance with health and safety. Some employees perform their tasks in temporary positions, which are completely unprepared. One authentic example from three years ago: makeshift positions partially set up on trash bins.
In a company that is a global sales giant…
Two years ago the places with temporary posts were called Bangladesh and Cambodia by the workers, that’s how poorly equipped they were. We had requested in previous years that they be closed, and as long as they were operating – not to assess the pace of the workers assigned there. Now we were going to inspect all the departments and assess whether or not the warehouses were prepared for the Christmas peak, and whether the workplaces were safe. The management refused.
The anti-union attitude was always there. For example, the company wanted the union to operate off-site. They promised us: you’ll get a great office… outside the company. We replied that it was absurd…
And you stayed at the warehouses.
They said: you can’t do union duty inside. We did them anyway. They forbade us to meet in the plant – we did. They even said that we weren’t allowed to walk around the plant and talk to the workers. And we walked around although we were reprimanded. There were even quarrels with the managers who would come up to us and snatch union documents and leaflets. Until they finally gave up – they must have realised that we would not.
It was easier for workers’ activists for a while. We were doing health and safety audits at the plant without any problems. Now there was a step back again. Again, everything is forbidden to us. Amazon refers to the regulation that union activity or social labour inspection activity is voluntary, social activity. We cannot engage in it during working hours, only during so-called union hours, but Amazon has recently refused to give us permission to use union hours on the plant. They interfere with the business needs of the company.
As you can see, it’s not an equal or easy fight, but we won’t let go. It’s a matter of time, if we don’t give up, if we have the support of workers and people from other plants, they will have to step back and allow us to organize. I’m sure we will succeed. We will fight for it because we have no other choice.
What is the mood among workers after one of them died at the warehouse?
People were shocked, embittered and pissed off at the company. I think that in such a situation they should leave their jobs and show that they do not agree with such situations. But in Poland workers are very intimidated. The asymmetry between employees and employers is too great. People take individual steps, often exposing themselves, or just talk to each other how terrible Amazon is and that they cannot stand this job anymore. But anger does not translate into action. At most, some people work slower for a while because they are fed up with everything. There is a lack of conviction that we will be strong and will only be able to do something about working conditions if we collectively organise ourselves.
This applies not only to Amazon. This is how most employees in Poland think. We observe that this perspective is slowly changing, because more and more people want to join unions and become active. However, the legacy of the 1990s is still alive: the employer is a god, he can do everything, while the employee is rubbish and in order to survive, it is best to keep a low profile.
Employees see what’s going on at Amazon and they will eventually explode at some point. It will happen sooner or later.
Before the pandemic, you organized a strike referendum at Amazon. How did that turn out?
About five thousand people participated in the referendum, that is: about a third of the workers directly employed by Amazon. Not all warehouse workers, however, because the number of people who are employed by agencies is significant. We would have won this referendum had it not been for the statutory requirement of a 50 per cent turnout. And this is the requirement under the Industrial Disputes Act: a minimum of half of the people employed by Amazon, in all positions, would have to vote in the strike referendum, and of that half, again 50 per cent would have to vote in favour of the strike.
Strike referendums are very rarely won in Poland precisely because of these provisions. It is very difficult to fulfil the turnout requirement: there is employee rotation, we are divided into dozens of shifts, people are on leave, on sick leave, they do not know each other, they live in different places, it is difficult to reach them, and those who do not want to strike do not vote in referendums. Statistics from particular years show that there are many collective disputes in Poland but strikes – only a few a year. The right to strike in Poland is in fact a fiction.
Imagine if a strike was attempted, under current regulations, by trade workers. I don’t know what they would have to do. Once they succeeded in Tesco. Their strike referendum lasted for months – after all, in every shop of this chain in Poland they had to ask all employees, including HR workers, whether they were for or against the strike. When, for example, Solidarity employees from Biedronka wanted to strike, they had to ask everyone employed by the chain. From Wałbrzych, Szczecin, Grudziądz… from all over Poland. It was unrealistic.
Going back to our Amazon referendum – had we been in Germany, in France, in Greece, in Sweden, in virtually any European country, we could have organized a strike. Nowhere is the law on industrial action so restrictive. Also, in the case of referendums held at the national level, or local and parliamentary elections, the turnout requirements are more lenient. Nowhere are the conditions as stringent as when it comes to workers organizing. It is necessary to amend the current law.
Do you expect to win against Amazon in court?
It is my and the Workers Initiative’s belief that Amazon has broken so many different laws that yes, I believe we will win.
Amazon missed the deadline for disciplinary action. They should have handed it out after a maximum of a month after the event to which they are referring. It took two months. They handed it out despite the union’s objections. Also, their allegations against me are absurd.
I got the impression they were trying to ridicule me. They want people believe that I was taking a selfie with a corpse. And yet, at the moment when this allegedly happened, I was in my car! All I saw was that something was happening outside the warehouse. I didn’t see any dead bodies. Nonetheless, I believe that every employee has the right to film and photograph their workplace and publish this material, just as politicians publish their asset declarations. Workplaces should be treated as places of public nature, subject to public scrutiny. It is not uncommon for tens of thousands to work in them. Their lives and health should be the most important, more important than the profits of a few private individuals, than alleged patents. If they do not wish to display certain technological solutions, they should cover them up. However, working conditions should be a public issue.
Why can’t we inform the public how things are on the inside? How work debilitates our bodies, the cost of which is paid by entire societies? Why are workplaces guarded like fortresses? What are the owners afraid of? If someone is convinced that their business is only their private business, let them run a sole proprietorship rather than employ people. This is why I have openly filmed our union’s activities at Amazon several times.
But they didn’t throw me out then. They did it now, when I wasn’t doing anything.
Guess why you got kicked out now?
Something must have happened in the company that, despite missing the deadline and not having the agreement of the union, they decided to fire me. Maybe someone decided that now is the time to toughen up the policy towards trade unions and employees? Maybe someone figured that it was peak time, so they would fire me, shut everyone’s mouths, and it would be great? Except it won’t!
Employees have been speaking to me, saying that they don’t agree with what happened, and are keeping their fingers crossed for me to come back. A solidarity campaign has been launched, for which I would especially like to thank everyone involved, because I didn’t expect it to reach such proportions. And above all, I and my trade union are even more pissed off. We will act all the more, speak out about working conditions at Amazon and we will unite workers even more actively. We will not let Amazon get away with the way it treats people.
Translated by Wojciech Łobodziński.
A solidarity fundraising is underway for Magda Malinowska, who, having been fired from her job at Amazon, has no source of income and received no severance pay or benefits.
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