Updated: Did Amazon Hire Neo-Nazis as Security Guards?

question-markThere's a story going around right now that Amazon's operation in Germany has hired a security firm that reportedly had ties to neo-Nazis. The guards at one of Amazon's warehouses in Germany are alleged to have intimidated workers, dressed as neo-Nazis, and even got into a fight with some film makers.The story was originally reported by the German language tv network ARD (video), and picked up in English by The Independent and The Huffington Post. It's a damning accusation, if true, and could affect Amazon's reputation around the world.Let me be the first to say that something doesn't add up here.Here's how The Independent reported the story:

Germany’s ARD television channel made the allegations in a documentary about Amazon’s treatment of more than 5,000 temporary staff from across Europe to work at its German packing and distribution centres.

The film showed omnipresent guards from a company named HESS Security wearing black uniforms, boots and with military haircuts. They were employed to keep order at hostels and budget hotels where foreign workers stayed. “Many of the workers are afraid,” the programme-makers said.

My problem with this story is that I am having trouble finding corroborating sources.

I am unfortunately hampered by not being conversant in German, so I can't speak for the contents of the video. But when I sat down to write this story today I first checked the German language publishing industry and bookselling blogs I follow (Google Translate is my friend).

The 2 sites I checked had not covered this story yet, nor have they made any mention in the past about allegations Amazon having neo-Nazi guards. What's more, Spiegel has not covered this story now or in the past, and a friend on Twitter can't find any coverage in 3 major German newspapers (thanks, Victor).

This is such an inflammatory story that I have to wonder why it's getting so much more coverage outside of Germany than inside. Could it be that the local journalists (who are not hampered by a language barrier) don't find the story credible?

And given the inflammatory nature of this story, do you really believe it is likely that the story wasn't broken by photos posted to Twitter and Facebook? Seriously, no one had a smartphone and took a picture of Amazon's neo-Nazi guards? Wouldn't those photos have made the rounds, including getting press coverage?

I don't mean to deny that there could be some truth to the story, but it feels to me like some details had to have been blown out of proportion. Sure, the working conditions and pay aren't as good as the union reps interviewed in the video might like, but guards dressed up as neo-Nazis?

Furthermore do you really think that a security firm in Germany that dressed up like neo-Nazis (no matter whether they actually had ties to neo-Nazis as the film alleged) wouldn't have gotten a lot of hostile press attention?

It might be the filmmakers or it might be the original reporting in English that introduced the inaccuracies (though I think The Independent would be careful to get the details correct). I don't know. In any case, I am holding this story as an unverified allegation while I wait for more local coverage.

Update: And now I have it.

Hess Security has denied a number of the details in the story (uniforms, staffing, and neo-Nazi connections and or political leanings) and says that other details (room searches, incident with filmmakers) are being misreported. According to HESS, 30% of their staff is from other parts of Europe, and includes Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists. BTW, the company's full name is Hensel European Security Service and it is owned by a Patrick Hensel.

Update 2: A number of readers have found new info on this story and pointed out that when a security firm has a name that resembles a notorious Nazi, includes SS (Security Service) in the company name, and where the owner is photographed in a black shirt with the company name in red and white, it looks more than a little like the security firm has Neo-Nazi ties.

About Nate Hoffelder (11587 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader:"I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

28 Comments on Updated: Did Amazon Hire Neo-Nazis as Security Guards?

  1. HESS stands for Hensel European Security Services. The 29 minute show can be watched on the ARD web site. The film shows some of the dismaying living and working conditions. The foreign workers are not employed by Amazon but work for a temp agency. The show implies a bate and switch technique by Amazon.de. A day or two before departure from their home country an Amazon email informs them they will not be employed by Amazon but will be offered a similar contract from a private employment agency. That is not the case, less pay and other various deductions.
    As with a lot of TV shows, 60 Minutes comes to mind, it is highly sensationalized which might explain the lack of corroboration in the rest of the German media.

  2. Ingo Lembcke, Hamburg // 15 February, 2013 at 3:03 pm // Reply

    Well, being German and having watched the show yesterday online, my 2 ct.
    It was mentioned that maybe Amazon is doing nothing legally wrong, but rather exploiting a tax loophole, they where not sure about that. The sub-contracting of temp-workers is a usual practice, I worked in Germany at EDS (later HP), there they did the same, and I can see nothing wrong with that.
    In the show it was suggested, that the paid wages where less because of “Sozialabgaben” – social security contributions – not being paid or deducted from the money before being paid to the workers. This is unclear for the workers, as their contracts are in German, and the workers coming from Poland, Sweden (really???) and Spain are not able to understand them, also they are (supposedly) presented in the last minute, when the workers are in Germany as a take-it-or-go-back-deal.
    The living conditions where shown, and they where shown to be controlled by the mentioned security agency HESS, patrolling, ever present (during breakfast etc), and doing searches of rooms when the people where working.

    It is worth mentioning that HESS is the last name of Rudolf Heß (oftentimes spelled Hess), so the name of company may be deliberately chosen, he was convicted in Nuremberg 1946 as a War Criminal. So a Nazi-Background is not out of question. A few members where shown to have right-wing (Nazi) or otherwhise gang-related background, sometimes convictions of battery or fights.
    While grouped together these conditions may be bad, my opinion is, that only a small part of it can be openly blamed on Amazon, if anything.
    Being a member of the world, I realize that a lot of people would be glad to work under these conditions. Maybe I am overly cynical, but that is what happens, when you have to switch countries to find work, globalisation at work…
    And this not being reported, well, I read a short summary at bild.de and watched the show after.
    Bild made a follow-up investigation, asking wether it is really that bad (via Google Translate):
    http://translate.google.com/translate?sl=de&tl=en&js=n&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&eotf=1&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.bild.de%2Fgeld%2Fwirtschaft%2Famazon%2Fist-bei-versand-haendler-amazon-wirklich-alles-so-schlimm-28541646.bild.html

  3. Hello!
    German ARD TV isn’t an unknown TV channel, and FAZ isn’t an unknown newspaper. I am surprised how uninformed digital reader is about germany.
    Why does amazon do these unaware kind of doing their job in times of corporate responsibikity.
    Plaese remember Shell and Brent Spar. And, please read FAZ newspaper, they proove ARD findings. Why do You want only discuss working conditons in China. Remembering well in US one call this working poor. Yes, amazon does a good job for me as costomer. But i reaally think if i should buy further as ” prime”.
    Heinz

    • Goodness what an irrelevant complaint.

      ARD is certainly a known tv channel – in Germany. If I regularly watched and read German media I might have a better idea how to judge their accuracy. But I don’t have enough time to keep track of all English language media sources, much less TV channels in a language I don’t speak, so it is ridiculous to fault me for not knowing about ARD (beyond reading the Wikipedia article).

      • Well, you said you checked, but you obviously don’t know how to do it. So I checked for you – only two minutes, though – and came up with prominently placed articles on this story in Die Welt, FAZ, Frankfurter Rundschau, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Tagesspiegel, Der Spiegel – IOW every single major (and minor) German news outlet is reporting on it.

        As to clues whether the “security service” has obvious Neonazi sympathies, I’ll refer you to this picture:

        http://extratip.de/files/2012/09/et094953.jpg

        The guy to the right is the boss/owner of HESS, the guy next to him his deputy, according to the article. They both wear Neonazi colors on the collars of their uniform shirts.

        http://extratip.de/2012/09/17/geschaeft-mit-sicherheit-boomt-bedarf-an-security-waechst-geeignete-leute-fehlen/

        • Your proof that they have neo-Nazi ties is a small photo that shows that they wore black buttoned down shirts with what looks to be the company logo on the collar in red and white. Yeah, I’m convinced. And yes, I do know the significance of red-black-white versus red-black-gold.

          And you say that all those sites covered this story? Not that I can tell. Der Spiegel, Frankfurter Rundschau, Der Tagesspiegel, and Süddeutsche Zeitung (this site was completely inaccessible) don’t return any search results for “Amazon nazi”.

          I don’t dispute that you will be able to dig up the stories, but if I can’t find them via a news site’s own search function it’s not my fault that I reported there was no coverage.

          Edit: And even if you do find the coverage, will the stories be as inflammatory as the English language stories? I doubt it, and that supportsw my point some details are being blown out of proportion.

          • Right. Wearing black shirts as a uniform, with Neonazi colors tacked on the collar, calling themselves a “security service” (SS), “European” to boot so as to make it sound like the name of the major Neonazi hero Rudolf Hess, these are all totally innocent coincidences. Never mind that they also wear Neonazi fashion items that even Amazon refuses to sell. Or, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck maybe it is a fucking duck.

            The main point of the report is not just the ideological leanings of a dubious, petty “security service”, anyway. It is the way Amazon abuses “loan workers” to eke out a few additional bucks, the American way. Until they are unionized, they’ve lost me as a customer, sorry.

          • You’re right.

            When you line up the points about HESS it does raise serious questions. While I still don’t believe the reports of the Neonazi fashion items (the report is too heavily dramatized for me to trust it), the rest of the details you mentioned do make me wonder if they were chosen deliberately for the symbolism.

            And just to be clear, I never doubted that the working conditions were poor by European standards. They’re not all that great by US standards, either, but I don’t think that’s going to bother very many Americans – not enough to get them to stop shopping at Amazon.

          • Not going to stop many europeans either, Nate. Handwringing in public, one-clicking in private, knows no boundaries. And europe is a bigger customer of chinese sweatshops than anybody else on the planet.

          • You did search for at Spiegel and others for “Amazon Nazi”?
            Well, yeah, the reason you did not find the coverage is easy, you can find the coverage without “Nazi”by only searching for “Amazon”. Just tested at Spiegel.De and the same will probably the case elsewhere. “Amazon Nazi” will still not find the articles at Spiegel.De .
            Not to put too fine a point to it, but that is Basic Search 101 imho: broaden the search if you do not find it with specifics.

          • First, Der Spiegel did use the word neonazi in the article so the search should have found it.

            When I search on Friday I also checked for Hess security, ARD amazon, and other obvious combinations. Those search terms didn’t find the article because it had not been posted yet.

            But the reason I used such an inflammatory term on Saturday was to see if the tone of the German coverage was as incendiary as the English language stories. Few stories used that detail, and that is a sign that the English language coverage was indeed flawed in some way, or that the German media was doubtful of the accuracy of that detail, or that they wanted more proof so they didn’t have to worry about being sued.

            And when many of the comments here focused on the working conditions that suggested to me that some who saw the “documentary” didn’t think the one detail about the Neo-Nazi guards was as important as the English language coverage made it out to be.

            It might not be clear from the outside but there was a method to my madness. I tried to use the coverage of and response to the original story to judge whether the accuracy of the original story and whether it was tabloid journalism. I’m still thinking about it.

  4. Spiegel.de

    ARD-Dokumentation: Wie Amazon Leiharbeiter kaserniert
    http://www.spiegel.de/wirtschaft/unternehmen/ard-reportage-dokumentiert-missstaende-in-der-leiharbeit-bei-amazon-a-883156.html

    Schikanierte Amazon-Arbeiter: Arbeitsagentur fordert rasche Aufklärung
    http://www.spiegel.de/wirtschaft/soziales/amazon-arbeitsagentur-ruegt-arbeitsverhaeltnisse-von-leiharbeitern-a-883750.html

    Sorry – the articles are not availabel at the englisch version of Spiegel.de

  5. Having watched the report by German TVstation ARD, I have no doubt that there truth to the story. I also have no doubt that it’s being blown out of proportion. Set to ominous music and asking a lot of charged questions without providing clear sources or clear answers, the report very obviously has a predetermined agenda.

    While it’s likely true that Amazon relies on temporary employees from all over the EU, that in itself is neither unusual nor illegal. “Zeitarbeit” — temporary employment — is nothing out of the ordinary here. There a many temp agencies that supply temporary employees to companies in need of short-term support, for example during the holiday rush. Since these employees are mostly untrained and hired for menial work, payment usually isn’t very good. It’s not a great system, but to pass this off as a shocking new revelation seems more than a little sensationalistic.

    In at least one case, Amazon seems to have chosen a questionable temp agency, which apparently was responsible for hiring an euqally questionable security firm. Amazon has already released a statement saying that they were not aware and that they didn’t intend for employees to feel intimidated by the security.

    As far as I can gather, that’s really all there is to it, which might explain why none of the 3 major German newspapers I read seem to have run with this story (on Friday).

  6. Since all of these 3 major newspapers have certainly reported on it BY NOW, I guess it is not all that insignificant as it may have appeared to you. One of the great “advantages” of outsourcing is plausible deniability if corrupt practices are being exposed. Another advantage is that you can still profit from them, even though not formally responsible for practices you have instigated.

    Reports like this are important to raise awareness about what we are supporting if we place orders through Amazon. Some people obviously don’t give a damn, but others may well realize that we don’t loose much if we don’t support the abusers.

  7. This is quite interesting, both from a journalistic point of view re. the difficulty in finding secondary sources and a consumer point of view.

    As for the neo-nazi affiliation- I can believe that Amazon has so much on their plate that they are not regulating what their temp agencies are doing, and could be unaware of the security company’s actions and affiliations. Their response to the information is quite important.
    As far as the working conditions- That is undeniably Amazon’s responsibility. It may very well be true that those practices are common in the EU. That doesn’t make it ok, any more than the fact that the conditions at Foxconn for Apple workers are common in China. And the only way that improvements are going to be made are if those conditions are publicized. Although Apple’s sales haven’t been harmed, consumers have spoken out and (baby steps) some changes have been made. Maybe (hopefully) the same will happen here.

  8. We Americans can’t possibly understand the emotional resonance of the HESS company shirt and jacket designs in Europe any better than the average Japanese could grasp the significance of wearing certain colors on a street corner in Compton. So, I’m inclined to trust the reactions of the Europeans leaving comments here, and on various other sites, about this news story.

    That said, I don’t think Amazon has any more responsibility for this affair than Apple and other American manufacturers had for worker conditions at Foxconn. Which is to say, not much. What’s important is how Amazon reacts to this, and what changes it makes to its subcontractor agreements in response.

  9. I love amazon -as a customer- so i’m a bit impressed about the news. what is more impressing me is the lack of replies from amazon… or maybe they have not been highlighted enough.. this news have been launched also from italian public TV (just a short view of the ARD movie with some translation) and some newspaper.

  10. Amazon just fired the security firm (because they “didn’t know” about the working conditions).

    Womp womp.

  11. There is further development in the story. Latest news tell us, that Amazon won’t do no business anymore with HESS. http://www.zeit.de/wirtschaft/unternehmen/2013-02/amazon-sicherheitsdienst

      • Hello Nate,

        if you like to get some new info’s about the true story of this fiction thriller of amazon please email me.
        The wind has changed and now the 2 journalists (filmmakers) Peter Onneken and Diana Löbl are under strong suspicion of having altered dialogs,pictures and manipulated an email of a witness.So parts of the story are totally fabricated.

        Regards

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