This distribution center does have its affairs in order
This distribution center is ideal for an advertisement about sustainability. Rainwater is used to flush the toilets. There is a large garden around the mega shed. And the packaging bags are now stark white, without dyes – better for the environment.
But what about the working conditions in this distribution center?
At a quarter past ten this Tuesday morning, the company receives an unexpected visitor, good for tens of thousands of online orders per day. The Social Affairs and Employment Inspectorate, eight people, is at the door unannounced. Inside, the group of inspectors splits up. Heike Köglin (46) and her colleagues check whether employees are paid enough and are not working too long; they interview employees and sift through the accounts. Ismail Sarica (47) and his colleague check whether everyone in the workplace adheres to the corona measures. In addition, checks are also made for ‘risk of collision’, the chance that an employee will be hit by a forklift.
The Inspectorate SZW has been keeping an extra eye on the distribution centers for a year now. The reason is our own research from 2019 which shows that distribution centers are regularly unsafe. Accidents due to collisions with forklift trucks and complaints due to physical (over)loading are frequent. The workload is also high: long days are worked under ‘high pressure’, according to the 2019 Annual Inspectorate Report. How long someone goes to the toilet is sometimes recorded.
Due to the corona pandemic, the Dutch are ordering more online. These parcels are processed in the distribution center by mainly migrant workers. Because they do not know the rules and language, they are vulnerable to possible exploitation. “The risk of violating corona measures, accidents at work, working too long and being paid too little,” the Inspectorate wrote at the end of 2020, “will only increase with this extra crowds.”
The Inspectorate launched an offensive. SZW inspectors visited more than two hundred distribution centers last year. In seven out of ten DCs, “something is wrong”, Philip Meijran says, and the rules are broken.
Meijran is project leader at the Inspectorate SZW and coordinated the checks in the distribution centers. According to him, the violations vary: from violated corona measures (“twenty men close together”) to high work pressure (“barely six hours between two shifts”) to underpayment. Fourteen investigations are underway into distribution centers that violated the rules, according to Meijran. The results are not yet known.
What does he see there? Three sinks in a row. That is not allowed, says inspector Ismail Sarica, because then 1,5 meters away is not kept
Inspector Ismail Sarica scans his environment. The cafeteria looks neat, he says. Tables and chairs are far enough apart; they are much less than in a normal situation. Handgel is available at the registration desk, in the canteen and in the offices. And on the ground in front of the gates that provide access to the distribution hall, there are ‘waiting areas’, so that employees are not crowded together when they clock in for their shift.
Before entering the distribution hall, Sarica pokes his head around the corner of the toilets. What does he see there? Three sinks in a row. That is not allowed, says Sarica, because then 1.5 meters away is not kept. “You have to put a bag over the middle sink.” The location manager nods.
In Hall 1 are hundreds of large iron cages, filled to the brim with returned parcels. Too small. Too big. Not pretty. 40% of the orders are returned to the sender, says the location manager. Thousands of orders a day come back.
Phong works in the return department, Fashion section, where she checks whether returned clothing and shoes are not broken, washed or worn. She has been working in the distribution center through an employment agency for over three years now. Four days a week, shifts from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“Do you also have breaks?” asks labor market fraud inspector Jovanka Korkers. She and Phong are in a sterile room with a suspended ceiling on the first floor. Phong has three breaks: two of twenty minutes, and one of half an hour. She doesn’t get paid for the latter.
“Do you know how much you earn per hour?” Korkers asks.
Phong remains silent for a moment. “I did read it on the payslip, but I don’t remember exactly.”
Korkers wants to know who registers your hours. The distribution center, says Phong. “At the entrance, you clock in when you start, and out when you leave.” Phong also gets holiday pay.
Korkers, shortly after the conversation, to her colleague Heike Köglin in the hallway: “I have not been able to observe anything crazy.” The other three employees are also okay. Koglin has requested information from the company about about twenty employees to see if they are not working too long and are receiving sufficient wages. The documents will be sent to the Inspectorate.
Köglin: “I am really surprised that no migrant workers work here.” “Almost unbelievable, but it’s true,” says Korkers. Köglin: „I see almost only Dutch names on the list. I complimented the company: it is very clever how they have arranged it.”
That is not always the case. Distribution centers often depend on an employment agency for staff, says project leader Meijran. The larger employment agencies have their affairs in order, he says, but sometimes they can’t find enough staff and they outsource some of them to smaller, sometimes ‘shadowy’ employment agencies. That’s where things often go wrong, he says. They operate on the edge of the collective labor agreement and often arrange housing as well as work. “If an employee loses his job, he also has to leave his home.”
Hundreds of employees of online store giant Amazon in Germany laid down their work in December in protest against poor conditions. Undercover reports from various Amazon media outlets show that employees of the distribution center walk ten to twenty kilometers in a day. The location manager of the company that the Inspectorate SZW now visits has also been informed. “That’s not the case with us.” His distribution center is largely automated, the manager says, and employees can report “dangerous situations” anonymously via an ‘orange letter’.
At half past one, the inspectors are in the canteen with the location manager for a short evaluation. “We have a very positive impression,” says Ismail Sarica. The working conditions as well as the safety regulations and corona measures seem to be well observed. “It looks really good here.”