Amazon warehouse workers protest working conditions in Europe on Black Friday

Workers protest at the headquarters of Amazon in San Fernando de Henares, in Madrid, Spain. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BERLIN (BLOOMBERG) - Amazon employees in Europe protested warehouse working conditions, some using the slogan "we are not robots," in another challenge for the world's biggest online retailer heading into its busiest time of year.

Workers in Germany, Spain, and France walked off the job at Amazon fulfillment centres on Black Friday (Nov 23), one of the busiest online shopping days of the year.

In Italy and Britain, workers protested at several facilities, according to Bloomberg Law.

More than 600 German workers at the company's Bad Hersfeld facility walked out on Friday morning local time.

In Spain, workers at Amazon's Madrid-area San Fernando de Henares facility planned a two-day strike Friday and Saturday.

That facility employs 1,800 workers and was last on strike during Amazon Prime Day, another major shopping day for the company in May, according to UNI Global Union.

About 500 workers in Britain demonstrated at five Amazon warehouses, according to the GMB union. Membership in the union among Amazon employees is small, national officer Mick Rix said.

Images on social media showed small groups of people gathered with banners from the union.

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"What we're saying is Jeff Bezos, you're the richest man in the world, you have the wealth and ability to make sure your workers are treated with respect and dignity," Rix said.

"You as the wealthiest man in the world would prefer to spend your wealth on space travel rather than on the people who create your wealth."

Germany and Britain are among Amazon's biggest international markets, accounting for more than US$27 billion (S$37 billion) in sales in 2017.

Germans are expected to buy about €2.4 billion (S$4.2 billion) worth of goods on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, an increase of about 15 per cent over last year.

Amazon does not disclose sales totals for Spain.

Earlier this week, the company said it mistakenly shared customer data with undisclosed parties, a privacy misstep heading into the key holiday shopping period.

Amazon said on Friday that the demonstrations in Europe did not disrupt operations and disputed the level of protest participation claimed by some unions.

The company has invested €27 billion and created more than 75,000 permanent jobs in Europe since 2010, it said in an email.

"These are good jobs with highly competitive pay, full benefits, and innovative training programmes," the company said. "We provide safe and positive working conditions, and encourage anyone to come see for themselves by taking a tour at one of our fulfillment centres."

Amazon has become a symbol of wealth inequality and corporate welfare in the US since many of its warehouse workers receive government assistance for basic needs like food and health care, even though it is one of the world's most valuable companies run by chief executive officer Jeff Bezos, the world's wealthiest man.

The company tried to address the criticism in October by announcing all US warehouse workers would be paid at least US$15 an hour, though the company also eliminated some employee stock awards and bonuses.

Amazon faces worker backlashes in Europe more frequently due to a greater involvement of unions.

None of Amazon's US warehouse workers is represented by unions.

Still, a group of Somali workers at Amazon's Shakopee, Minnesota, fulfillment centre plan to protest Dec 14 following issues over workplace conditions and religious accommodations.

Workers at Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon, have recently begun talks of organising across multiple stores, but there has yet to be a vote, according to Bloomberg Law.

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