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Labor at odds with Amazon

Amazon’s logistics center in Bad Hersfeld, Germany. The US retailer has several distribution centers in the country.

Uwe Zucchi/EPA

Amazon’s logistics center in Bad Hersfeld, Germany. The US retailer has several distribution centers in the country.

BAD HERSFELD, Germany — Union activists stood in front of Amazon’s colossal gray distribution center last Thursday with a banner demanding that the US online retailing juggernaut negotiate a union wage contract with its currently nonunion workforce here.

The demonstration was the latest skirmish in an escalating battle between ver.di, one of the largest unions in Germany, and Amazon, which employs 8,000 permanent workers at eight distribution centers in the country, one of the online retailer’s largest markets outside of the United States.

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Amazon’s labor relations have lately come under intense scrutiny by German media.

The triggering event was a Feb. 12 broadcast by one of Germany’s two main public television networks of a documentary about the treatment of some of the 10,000 temporary workers that Amazon hired last year to cope with the holiday rush.

The broadcast has since inspired countless headlines, preoccupied pundits on Germany’s ubiquitous television talk shows, and may even become an issue in the national elections this autumn.

Heiner Reimann, a ver.di official, said that every year after­ Christmas he is flooded with complaints from temporary workers who say they were falsely led to believe they would get permanent jobs at Amazon if they met tough productivity requirements.

One of the union’s other criticisms is that a Big Brother atmosphere prevails in Amazon distribution centers.

Customer orders at Amazon are packed largely by hand, with productivity of individual employees closely monitored by software on the hand-held scanners workers use, and other means. ‘‘Feedback’’ sessions are held for those deemed insufficiently swift.

‘‘Our intent is not to spy with electronics, or to monitor with electronics in a punitive way,’’ said Dave Clark, Amazon’s vice president of worldwide operations. ‘‘We do expect our employees to perform.’’

There is no sign yet that the controversy stirred by the documentary is cooling.

Peer Steinbruck, leader of the Social Democrats, has recorded a video message in support of the online petition drive, calling on Amazon to negotiate with the union.

“A strong company like Amazon doesn’t need to use poor working conditions to create a competitive advantage,’’ Steinbruck says in the video.

But Clark said a union contract would not allow the company to pursue what it considers an innovative compensation system, which includes stock bonuses for all workers.

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