Corona crisis and Amazon: packing on the conveyor belt - despite the virus

Corona crisis and Amazon: packing on the conveyor belt – despite the virus

It's a sunny Monday afternoon in Winsen, but hardly anyone is to be seen on the streets. Two women are standing in the forecourt of the station waiting for a bus, separated and at a great distance from each other. The place is almost completely silent. Suddenly, several buses rush in, conspicuously crowded for Corona times, although not packed. Some of the passengers pulled a scarf or sweater over their mouths and noses, and a few also wear a respirator. A shift is over at Amazon.

As soon as the buses stop and open their doors, some of the more than 100 passengers jump out and run to catch the train heading for Uelzen, which is traveling from the slightly more distant track. The others move leisurely as a large group to the platform. They will soon board the regional train to Hamburg.

Amazon operates a huge logistics center in Winsen (Luhe) in Lower Saxony. According to the online retailer, it serves "as a traffic and economic hub for Northern Europe", around 1800 employees work there, many come and go every day – also and especially now, in the Corona crisis. You could say: they are systemically important.

The pandemic means that many people only order their goods online. And many of the thousands of parcels that are currently being brought to households in Northern Germany come from Winsen. Online retailers like Amazon have never been as important to society as they are today, since social distancing is currently carried out and distance must be maintained in order to protect yourself and others from the virus. But how well are the Amazon employees themselves protected?

The 64,000 square meter Amazon center of Winsen stands on the edge of a commercial area outside the town. Shuttle buses pick up the employees from the train station and bring them back after the shift. At the moment, Amazon employees are sometimes the only people on the streets – in large groups that you would otherwise not see at all. Around late Sunday evening, just before 11 p.m., when the almost ghostly empty station forecourt suddenly fills up for a short time, before a few minutes later everyone disappears into two buses and drives to the logistics center.

Exactly how the working conditions look there can hardly be said from the outside. But one thing is clear: Everyday life has also changed at Amazon as a result of the corona crisis.

SPIEGEL spoke to a good half a dozen Amazon employees in various German Amazon centers. Almost all respondents are concerned about catching themselves. Several Winsener employees report independently of each other that there have already been at least three Corona cases in the company. Amazon's press office does not comment on this. However, several employees also report that Amazon is making increasing efforts to prevent infection and protect employees, for example through strict spatial separation.

  • The controversial is meanwhile bonus, which Amazon introduced: The group plans to pay two euros per hour worked in addition to regular wages by the end of April "in order to honor the contribution made by shipping employees in Germany and Austria", the press office explains. Several employees questioned fear that this could be an incentive for the sick to "drag themselves to work" – and possibly infect colleagues there. Others are happy about the extra money.

  • If employees Symptoms of illness in the workplace show, they are often sent home, several report. They then receive their wages as well as colleagues who were in high-risk areas and who were therefore quarantined by the company.

  • Amazon not only warns its people with signs to keep their distance, but also tries to do more spatial separation at the workplace to accomplish. Among other things, the group does not have team meetings; there are markings on the floor for separation. In the canteens, chairs and tables are set apart, food is no longer served – and controls are dispensed with at the exit gates so as not to cause traffic jams. In addition, the company has staggered the start and break times of the shifts. There are still problem areas, employees report in unison. So you often get very close in the changing rooms, where the lockers are close together and one above the other. There are queues at the time clock. And in the canteens, some of the colleagues pushed their chairs together, for the sake of socializing.

  • About the Hygiene in the workplace Several respondents expressed concerns. The disinfectant that the company provides may not kill viruses, is feared. According to research by SPIEGEL, at least the agent used in the Leipzig plant is, according to the manufacturer, suitable for use against Covid-19. There is obviously no shortage of disinfectants anyway. An employee sniffs his hands after the shift: "I can still smell it everywhere." Amazon itself explains that employees are instructed to wash their hands often and for at least 20 seconds. In addition, the rooms would be cleaned more often than before; all door handles, banisters, elevator buttons, lockers and touch screens would be disinfected.

  • One problem is that in Winsen buses between station and factory. According to employees, they were often jam-packed until last week, and even on Monday afternoon not all passengers were able to keep the minimum distance of one and a half meters. From Amazon it is said that more vehicles are already in use and the maximum occupancy has been reduced from 110 to 50. From Wednesday onwards there will be even more buses so that no more than 20 employees have to drive in one bus at the same time.

Other things are changing in the mail order companies – because of the demand. "Clothing is rarely ordered," says an employee from Bad Hersfeld. Food is all the more in demand: "We are currently picking a lot of five-minute terrines, oatmeal and toilet paper," says the Leipzig logistics center. "Amazon buys everything that has been hammered away from supermarkets in the past few days."

The group then sends these goods out first. Prioritize "the receipt and dispatch of goods that customers currently need most," said a spokesman. It concerns "articles for the daily need, medical consumer goods and other products with high demand". The online giant already only delivers in Italy and France essential products. The press office cannot say whether this will also happen in Germany in the next few days. It is clear, however, that Amazon is laying the foundation these days for it to become permanently systemically important.

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