- Interview by
- Caspar Shaller
Two years ago, union organizer Magda Malinowska was fired from her job at an Amazon warehouse near Poznań, in western Poland. Her sacking came as retaliation for her efforts to speak out against poor working conditions — a conflict catalyzed by the September 2021 death of forty-nine-year-old Dariusz Dziamski, a colleague of hers who died on the shop floor. Fast forward to October 2023, and a Polish court has ruled that Amazon fired Malinowska illegally.
The ruling provides a small step toward justice for Malinowska, albeit only after a two-year delay, and a period in which many aspects of Amazon workers’ rights have worsened. In an interview, Malinowska spoke to Jacobin’s Caspar Shaller about Amazon’s inhumane treatment of staff, its violation of basic union rights, and workers’ efforts to stand up against corporate tyranny.
A court has decided that Amazon fired you illegally and reinstated your job …
… but they still have three weeks to appeal. I assume they will.
What was the judge’s reasoning?
That was the most interesting part: it was actually pretty clear that Amazon violated union rights. So, from a formal, legal perspective it was clear that I should win the case.
In Poland, however, it is possible to win the case, but without reinstatement. Some judges believe that if there is a major conflict between the trade unionists and the company it will be better this way. I was afraid that I would win the case but would not be reinstated — all the more so because the judge called more witnesses and delved deeply into the case and the relationship between the union and Amazon. The HR employees who fired me were questioned twice. Finally, the judge stated that my dismissal could have been caused by my activity. What I was accused of in terminating the contract was not proven during the case. Amazon didn’t manage to provide any evidence to support their position.
What was the reason Amazon gave for firing you?
They fired me for allegedly taking pictures or videos — but they didn’t know, because no one saw it — when the body of Dariusz, a colleague of mine who had died during his shift, was moved to the hearse, which they considered inconsistent with their values and social standards.
How did Dariusz die?
Dariusz had all the signs of experiencing a heart attack, but apparently that was not the medical reason. His wife told me his heart was broken. That’s why this was such an important case for us. Dariusz worked so hard. His job used to be done by a few people during a shift, but then they made him do all that work alone, pushing around trolleys with heavy boxes.
Dariusz had been complaining that his job was too exhausting for him and he wanted a different task. But they wouldn’t give him another position. They did the exact opposite: they reduced the number of people working the same job, so his work got even more exhausting.
Before Dariusz died, we’d long been trying to get Amazon to carefully examine energy expenditure and how hard the work we do is, including Dariusz’s. The company is required to do so by law. However, Amazon only roughly estimates how much energy workers put in, and doesn’t use an appropriate method to calculate it. A few years ago, we managed to persuade the Labor Inspectorate and CIOP (Central Institute for Labor Protection) to investigate the cases of several employees; some of them were putting in up to twice as much as the allowed levels.
We have court judgments that say that Amazon does not examine this properly. But this is dangerous, especially as each of us has some health issues, and some of us have been doing hard physical work for years. After Dariusz’s death, I told the media that [this past dispute] was probably the real reason for my dismissal.
On the Sunday before Dariusz died, he asked the supervisor to transfer him to another department because he was fed up with working too hard. Despite the requests, he continued to work alone at his post for about five hours. The next morning Dariusz collapsed and died on the floor of the warehouse. They didn’t really help him, despite his symptoms. He was told to go through the warehouse — the size of a dozen or so soccer fields — on his own, to go down the stairs to the medical room. When he got there, he died.
Does this kind of thing happen a lot? Are there a lot of people who die in Amazon warehouses?
It’s not like a construction site or a mine, where workers die all the time or have severe accidents. Amazon management actually gets pretty angry when there’s an accident. The work is dangerous in another way: the repetition and the strain get to you. That does affect your body and your health. That’s why we want to be able to do a labor inspection, to see if someone’s health is being affected by their work. And we want to change the definition of a workplace accident. Because if you do a super heavy job for some time and then you get a heart attack, formally it’s not connected to the job.
Amazon is known for spearheading new types of labor surveillance. How is that connected to this case?
One reason for the surveillance is that Amazon is trying to optimize all steps of the work process. They are not the only ones to try out new forms of labor management, but they are very quick at implementing changes. They are constantly implementing new ways of controlling workers’ bodies and movements. You can’t even leave your workstation for more than three minutes. You have scanners and cameras everywhere checking on your every movement.
So, surveillance is really the big issue at Amazon. Through all this, they force you to do very simple movements in a very repetitive way. Because they broke down the labor process into these simple movements, they can easily exchange workers, they don’t need experienced workers, they can just train new ones to do these simple movements. But having to do the same movements over and over and faster and faster is totally destroying our bodies.
What are you going to do, now that you can go back to the warehouse?
Well, for me, this is a completely new situation. I’ve never been fired and then reinstated. It’s going to be interesting what Amazon will do now. And I’m wondering if, after this ruling and the explanation that the judge gave us, they will be willing to change their relationship with us on the union side. That is actually what the judge said: that there is a conflict between labor and employer, but the conflict cannot be an argument to dismiss union members.
Firing all union members would mean there’s no union in the workplace anymore, but Polish law guarantees the right to a union. The juge even said she can see that Amazon’s attitude toward unions is very negative. It’s a global problem with Amazon: they don’t want to recognize unions anywhere. So, I think it was very important that this judge confirms what we’ve been saying, someone who’s not like us — some militant activist, who’s always up for a fight — but a representative of the state.
Do you think this ruling will change anything in the immediate future?
Unfortunately, I’m afraid they will not change their policy. They behave like they’re not scared of anything and try to break as many rules and regulations as possible. They’re just smashing everything on their way to making more and more profit. They’re always checking how far they can go, until finally there will be nothing left that can stop them. So this small victory is a step toward stoping them.
Amazon has used Poland as a base from which to attack German unions right next door, either by importing Polish workers as strikebreakers when German warehouses were being picketed or then by simply building warehouses along the German-Polish border to serve the German market and get around German labor laws and unions.
How can workers cooperate over national lines and stop multinationals from playing workers off each other?
The current situation is amazing for Amazon. There are so many different legal systems, even within Germany for example, different regions have different regulations. So they try to use it against us and to make bigger profits, pay less taxes, and so on. They move orders from one warehouse to another warehouse, if there is slack in one location – or when we’re organizing a blockade, for example for our campaign “Make Amazon Pay.”
When the Polish warehouses were opened, German workers were on strike, and the Amazon moved orders from German warehouses to Polish warehouses, forcing people Polish to work longer shifts. When Polish workers heard about the reason why they had to work longer shifts, they said, hey we don’t want to be scabs, and organized a go-slow. That was the beginning of our cooperation with German workers.
How has organizing workers made progress over the recent years?
Unfortunately, it’s become more difficult to organize. I think people are more scared. After previous actions, some people got fired. And there’s been a shift in company policy. When Amazon started out in Poland, they hired people on permanent contracts. That gave people a feeling of stability and legal protection, which allowed them to fight back.
But now, there are a lot of people who are employed by agencies. The split among the workers is pretty bad. I’ve seen discussions online about how only certain types of workers are allowed to do overtime. Pay is so low that everyone wants to pick up more shifts, so weirdly being allowed to work even more becomes a matter of prestige. So, working overtime isn’t a penalty, it’s a prize. That situation is totally sick.
What are you doing to change that?
Last year, we started a campaign about the firing of shop stewards and union representatives. Indeed, I wasn’t the only one who was sacked, there were others, too. And together with other unions, we organized a huge campaign to change the law. And it was successful: the government changed the law. Since the law came into effect in September it’s basically pointless to fire union officials. It’s still happening illegally, of course, but maybe it changes workers’ mentality a bit to know they have more legal rights. Maybe unions will get a little bit stronger. Or at least there won’t be a repetition of 2021 when so many people were sacked out of the blue.
Recently there was an election and the far-right government lost. So maybe there might be some change in how the state handles these cases. But we are not focused only on the law, we’re also trying to figure out how to strengthen our position in warehouses. And we will continue to educate workers and exchange ideas and experiences among people from my union and others. One important focus will be on inspecting labor standards and how workers can do that themselves. We will try to use health and safety as tool to make working conditions better.