A TV report into the lives of migrant workers employed at Amazon.com distribution centres in Germany has prompted the government to call for an investigation, and is pushing other companies to change their practices.
German TV channel ARD aired a 30-minute report last week, focusing on allegations of mistreatment of foreign workers hired to temporarily work in Amazon.de's packing and distribution warehouses.
According to the report, some workers were being paid less than what they were promised when they had applied for the job in their respective home countries and were subject to intimidation and random searches by the employees of a security firm contracted to guard the hostels where they were living.
ARD showed a temporary work contract bearing the name of Trenkwalder International, an Austrian employment agency that specializes in recruiting workers from Eastern and Central Europe.
Trenkwalder did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
In a statement sent to media outlets last week, Amazon said that it doesn't tolerate discrimination or intimidation and promised to investigate the claims.
The German Federal Labor Office (BA) is conducting an urgent investigation this week into the allegations made in the ARD report, a spokeswoman for the German Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (BMAS) said Monday. If they prove founded, the temporary job placement firm that Amazon worked with could lose its license.
The BMAS spokeswoman declined to name the company being investigated, but mentioned that it has been named in press reports. Most reports name Trenkwalder.
The ARD report alleged that security guards harassed and intimidated Amazon.de migrant workers at the budget hotels where they were living, and that the guards and their employer, Hensel European Security Services (HESS), had links to neo-Nazi movements.
Some of the guards were shown wearing clothes by Thor Steinar, a brand known to be favored by far-right extremists that was banned in several German stadiums and inside the German Parliament. Amazon itself stopped selling Thor Steinar clothing in 2009.
ARD suggested the company's name "HESS" might be an allusion to Rudolf Hess, Adolf Hitler's deputy in the Nazi party, and said that the firm was allegedly headed by a man known as Uwe L who had ties to known football hooligans and neo-Nazis.
One worker interviewed in the report said that the security guards told her: "This is our house. You must do like we say. Here we are like the police."
HESS dismissed accusations that the company has or supports right-wing views in a statement published on its website on Friday.
"The Hensel European security service (HESS) is a politically and ideologically neutral company. We expressly distance ourselves from all forms of political radicalism, both from right-wing extremism and leftism and religious fanaticism," it said.
The company said that between 30 percent and 70 percent of its staff come from immigrant families and include Christians, Muslims and Buddhists.
Any report of an employee being associated with right-wing extremist movements will be investigated and if proven true, efforts will be made, within the bounds of the law, to terminate that employee's contract, the company said.
The company said that it had been contracted by the firm handling housing accommodations for temporary workers on behalf of Amazon. The security guards are needed to resolve conflicts that might arise when a large number of individuals who don't know each other live in the same place and to protect the hostel owners from property theft or destruction, which is a frequent occurrence, the company said.
HESS does not perform illegal searches, the company said. Room searches are done in agreement with the hotel and solely in connection with the hotel's housekeeping in order to identify and document any possible damage or lost items, it said.
Since the report aired, the company has banned the wearing of Thor Steinar clothing by its employees. It also plans to terminate its business relationship with Commando Industries Textilhandels, a manufacturer of specialized combat clothing including bulletproof vests and uniforms that ARD also suggested had ties to right-wing extremism.
Amazon has stopped its collaboration with the criticized security firm "effective immediately," Amazon.de representative Ulrike Stoecker said Monday via email. However, Amazon initially told media outlets last week that it did not hire HESS itself. Stoecker did not clarify whether Amazon had a direct contract with HESS or was working with HESS through a work agency.
Stoecker said that Amazon has around 8,000 full-time employees in Germany and hires additional ones on seasonal fixed-term contracts during peak times, sometimes through work agencies. The employees hired though a temp work agency who were working in its logistics center in Bad Hersfeld, in the German state of Hesse, and who were presented in the ARD report, earned almost the same wages as the employees paid directly by Amazon, Stoecker said.