Interesting look at the working conditions and workers' resistance in H&M warehouses in Germany and factories in India.
H&M warehouse, Hamburg
Workers: 2000 (one third agency workers)
Pay: Permanent workers get 12.77 Euro (£9.12) per hour; temporary workers 8 Euro (£5.75).
In the first issue we talked about what it was like to work at clothes company, Jack Wills in Greenford, and about workers' actions at one of their suppliers in India. Even though these workers were on other sides of the globe, there was more in common between them than we first might have thought: bullying bosses, high work intensity, surveillance and stress. In the second part we document the experience of a friend working at a H&M warehouse in Germany and reports of garment workers' struggles at H&M suppliers in Gurgaon, India.
*** Working and fighting at H&M in Hamburg…
Our friend worked as a permanent picker in the big H&M warehouse in Hamburg, Allermoehe. The warehouse is huge and opened in 2008. His job is to make sure that every item sold in the bigger shops in Germany and Holland is re-stocked within 24 hours. This warehouse is a crucial connecting point between the global south and Eastern Europe (where the the clothes are made and packed) and shops all over central and western Europe.
When we talk about 'Germany' we often think that the economy is doing well, so people must earn decent money and have a good standard of living. But Germany's 'success' has been based on a very large low-waged sector - now the biggest in Europe. A third of the people at the H&M warehouse are agency workers who have similar conditions to ours over here: short notice of when you have to work; mainly migrant workers (from eastern Europe, Arab countries, Africa); they get lower wages than the permanents even though they do the same job; they do the worst shifts (evenings and weekends); they're often sent home after three hours of work; sometimes they are only told there is no work after they have arrived and only workers who kick up a fuss get paid for two hours, the others go home with nothing.
Plug in and drop off!
There are different departments: unloading big cardboard boxes (bulk stuff directly from suppliers in India, Cambodia, Portugal); 're-fill', which means bringing these boxes to shelves for picking; 'call off' meaning picking orders from cardboard boxes on shelves into plastic boxes in the trolley, and 'dispatch' which means lifting plastic boxes (around 20 kg) onto conveyor belts to be sent out.
The air in the main hall is very hot and dry. Workers who put together orders have to walk long distances. During the summer an ambulance car arrives regularly because people faint or get injured. The drying-chemicals that are added to the boxes coming from Asia to protect the clothes from damp cause headaches and breathing difficulties.
The company tries to use technology to make the process more 'efficient'. Pickers wear a head-set where a computer voice tells you where to go and what to pick.
"The computer-voice say: "Go to alley no. XY". I go there and once I arrive I say: "Further". The computer-voice then tells me to which shelf to go to. I have to read out a number and then the computer-voice tells me which type of garment and how many to take out and put into my box. They introduced the 'pick-by-voice' fairly recently in 2012; some older workmates have trouble with the device, they don't understand the commands; they get angrier and shout at the machine, which in turn does not understand them!"
Despite these regular communication breakdowns management says that the basic productivity has increased since it introduced this system, probably because after each pick the voice immediately comes up with the next pick which somehow makes you work faster. And the fact that you can use both hands probably speeds things up too.
To stress or not to stress..?
Very unusually, there is there is no individual measurement of productivity and the managers are not allowed to look into individual performance numbers. Some people say it's because otherwise H&M would have to pay 'piece-rate' wage, which they don't want to do. So productivity is measured for the whole department (40 to 70 people), which means on an individual level, there is little reason to stress out. But some people still do! WHY?? They say that 'they are watching you' and you will only get a permanent contract if they see that you're moving fast. People might work faster at the end of the shift because they want to go home earlier, but most say that everyone should work as much at their own pace, so that is good!
The first strike took place in June 2009, shortly after the warehouse opened in October 2008. It was organised by the ver.di union, which is the biggest union in the whole of Europe. In Germany, there is a (sector-specific) national collective wage agreement that is negotiated every few years. In the run-up to the negotiations, the union mobilised permanent workers to strike for a higher wage. 120 of the 850 workers who were there at the time took part - most of them had previously worked in other H&M warehouses.
The result was that the starting wage for permanent workers quickly increased by 36 cents an hour (3%) and later on, from the 1st January 2014, temp workers got 31 cents an hour (3.8%) more.
In 2011 the union demanded that all temps should be made permanents or at least get the same wage. They organised some small demonstrations about the issue, but not much else…
More recently, some permanent workers are taking part in the union's one-day strikes. The wage demand is a 2 per cent increase, which would not even compensate for inflation. The wage of the newly hired permanent pickers would actually be lower - a second-tier permanent workforce. The union hopes that with these lower wages the company would use less temporary workers and would outsource less work to other companies. This is an illusion, and the price is high: yet another contractual division that might make it harder for workers to come together.
Clawing back the money...
The strike did not achieve much, especially for the temp workers: instead of making the wages more similar between the temps and permanents, the difference and therefore the division between them remains in place. The company also tries to get back the money they lose on the slightly higher wages they have to give out by increasing productivity. Profits went up by 6.5% in the last three months of 2013 and turnover increased by 12% which they've managed to do by squeezing workers more.
…and making us work more
Recently there have been changes in the work-organisation on the shop-floor: they try and narrow job tasks so, for example, the pickers are only supposed to pick. This way they can find out more precisely how much time these tasks need - and use this to better control pickers and make them work faster. Picking sections are getting bigger and people have to do multiple picking orders. This means having to concentrate more and work harder with less breaks - so chances to speak to co-workers gets smaller. But because some people in some departments complained, management had to back-track on some of these changes.
"Why are we always trying to argue with the management, that this or that measure won't be effective for the company? It should be about what's good for us: we don't want to break our backs at work. We should decide our own pace to work, not theirs. Work will only be more effective if we allow ourselves to rush. Why should we?"
Now, people are worried about the announcement that a new distribution centre will open in Holland. They think there might be 15-20% less work in the warehouse in Hamburg. Companies are global, they can move from one place to another, which makes us feel like we have to accept to lower wages and compete with workers in other countries. But this is a losing battle. To put up a fight and not accept worsening pay and conditions, we also have to be global and work together with our sisters and brothers sweating in other places. They struggle against the bosses too!
*** Working and fighting at H&M in Delhi…
So what are our sisters and brothers up to in India, garment workers who make the clothes that are picked by our friend at the H&M warehouse in Germany? They are not taking things lying down! In February 2015, 300 angry factory workers from Gaurav International and Richa Global, garment companies that supply retail giants like H&M, went on the rampage after a workmate was physically attacked for arriving 10 minutes late to work. They were joined by hundreds of other workers nearby who attacked six garment factories around the industrial area, torched cars and stopped traffic on the main routes in and out of Delhi.
Game of hockey anyone?!
At another H&M supplier in Faridabad on the outskirts of Delhi, Shahi Export, workers are kicked out every year for stupid reasons like 'going to drink water too often!' The company uses this time to fire whoever they want and hire new people, but only after they've all worked an 8-hour 'trial' day for free! Workers that are kicked out don't get paid their statutory bonus, which decreases every year. Overtime is reduced and they've started to not pay the first few hours of it! One reason why overtime has gone down is because production targets have gone up.
"The supervisor shouts if we don't meet the target and the quality inspector shouts if we don't meet the quality standard. In October 2012 during the night-shift a quality inspector was beaten up with hockey sticks outside of the factory. Both his hands were broken and he needed an operation. He came back on duty at the end of November. Since October there has been less shouting by management staff in the factory."
Workers are resisting the bosses' drive to work them harder and faster. At Maya Export, another H&M supplier, a worker said:
"There is a lot of pressure for higher production output, they want 50 pieces in the time it takes to make 25-30 pieces. On the 12th February 2013 the sewing master came to line number 2 from line number 5, started shouting and grabbed a tailor. At this, all the workers of the sewing department beat up the mill master, production manager and quality control manager. The company didn't call the police. Workers continue to make 25-30 pieces."
When company thugs came on motorbikes to beat up a worker who wanted to leave because he was sick, workers from Richa Global gathered outside and beat them up instead! When they went back inside the factory they tried to get hold of the management people who were responsible. A supervisor tried to get away, broke a window and jumped from the first floor. He was injured and had to be taken to hospital. The police arrived. Workers stopped working...
These are violent conditions, not in back-yard slum workshops, but in 'modern' factories with hundreds of workers, using computer-controlled machines for stitching or packaging. The violence comes from somewhere: 12-14 hours work, six, seven days a week. Low wages, which hardly sustain a family, given the high rents in Delhi. At the same time people know that they work for multinationals making millions off their backs. Through wave after wave of struggles, garment workers in Bangladesh were able to increase the minimum wage considerably - in Delhi we're still waiting for this to happen...
Hamburg, Delhi, London… Sisters and Brothers, stay tuned!
We don't have this news because we read the mainstream newspapers, but because friends - angry workers like us - are writing down and circulating their experiences of working and fighting. We will keep in touch with them and send them our news from West-London…
Article for issue #3 of WorkersWildWest, a workers' paper for West-London. We hope to establish closer contact with H&M warehouse workers in our area.