The quotas are announced every fourth Wednesday. Minimum rates are set each week based on the 80th percentile of performers the previous week; in other words, the bottom fifth of workers had to increase their productivity to avoid a reprimand, which is called “feedback” in company language. As the employee handbook warned, a worker would be recommended for termination if they received six feedbacks in a year.
During one 12-week stretch, from March 7 to May 30, 2018, according to internal rate sheets reviewed by BuzzFeed News, hourly processing quotas increased for 37 of 93 jobs in the Poznan warehouses, including from 104 items to 116 for small-/medium-item packers, 107 to 120 for small-item pickers, 269 to 322 for small-item stowers, and 472 to 500 for sorters on the rebin team. Minimum rates decreased for only four jobs.
“Like most companies, we have performance expectations for every Amazonian — whether they’re a corporate employee or fulfillment center associate — and we measure actual performance against those expectations,” Eichenseher said. “The vast majority of our employees easily achieve their goals.”
From the start, Amazon workers in Poland have to compete with their colleagues to hold onto their jobs. Applicants searching for entry-level associate jobs in Poznan or Wrocław on Amazon’s website are redirected to temp agencies, which supply the company with workers who start on one-month contracts. In Poland, 39% of “low-status” workers are employed through temp agencies, triple the rate in Germany. Temp workers who complete three straight one-month subcontracts, the maximum under Polish law, get a chance at a full-time one-year contract with health insurance and other company benefits, as long as they make it through a three-month trial period during which Amazon can legally fire them for any reason. Those retained at the end of their one-year contract graduate to a permanent contract, which offers more protection from termination, as required under European Union regulations limiting the use of fixed-term staffing.
Experienced associates on permanent contracts learn to keep a pace that just barely hits the week’s quota to help minimize its growth. Some hold informal competitions over who can get closest to the minimum rate without going under, two workers said. But those on short-term contracts, who make up more than half of the Poznan warehouse’s staff some months, don’t know what rate they need to hit to get rehired when their end date comes — only that Amazon will retain an undefined number of the top performers among them, based on the latest shipping projections.
“I try to work at 150% rate because I know they won’t prolong my contract if I don’t,” said one Poznan worker on a short-term contract who declined to be named because she feared losing her job for speaking publicly. “They really wear us down.”
In 2018, the country’s National Labor Inspectorate, known by its Polish acronym PIP, ordered a test to measure the energy expended by Amazon workers. Officials from PIP’s Work Environment Research Section in Gdańsk arrived in Poznan on June 20; over two days, they hooked up workers at five stations to a device called a MWE-1 meter, a rubber mask attached to a tubular machine that measures breathing to calculate the kilocalories burned during a shift. Similar tests were scheduled at other facilities across the country. In all, the agency aimed to measure energy levels of 11 different Amazon warehouse jobs.
Jobs that burn at least 1,500 kcal in men or 1,000 in women are classified as “heavy” and require certain conditions under Polish labor laws: Night shifts can’t be longer than eight hours, employers need to provide at least one free meal, and workers must have at least 11 hours of rest time between shifts. Amazon claimed, based on its own measurements, that none of its jobs were heavy.
By the time of the inspectorate’s June 2018 examination, Amazon’s Poznan and Wrocław warehouses had already undergone at least one energy measurement each, on court orders tied to wrongful termination complaints. Conducted by Envilab, a private research laboratory, the tests determined that 18 of the 20 jobs measured in Wrocław on April 27, 2015, and nine of the 36 jobs measured in Poznan on April 12, 2018, were classified as heavy. A woman in the rebin department in Poznan expended 1,068 kcals, a man in the Wrocław stow department 1,986, and associates on the sort team in both warehouses more than 1,600. By law, the findings could be used as evidence in individual court cases but not for any wider enforcement against the company’s practices.
The inspectorate’s test found even higher levels. Of the 11 jobs assessed, seven were classified as heavy, which the agency said “exceeded permissible standards” for a 10-hour night shift. A rebin worker clocked 2,087 kcals, a packer 3,056.
Danuta Rutkowska, a spokesperson for the National Labor Inspectorate, told BuzzFeed News that “representatives of Amazon show willingness to cooperate,” but that the agency has no evidence that the company has addressed the energy expenditure issue. “This problem remains in the sphere of further interest of PIP,” Rutkowska said.
Amazon presented a different view of the inspectorate’s findings. “We disagree with the assessment by PIP,” spokesperson Eichenseher said. “As of today, there are no workplaces where the energy expenditure has been exceeded.”