BERLIN — The workers came from across Europe to pack boxes for the online retailer Amazon at distribution centers in Germany during the Christmas rush. They did not expect to be watched over — some say intimidated — by thugs in neo-Nazi-style clothing and jackboots.
On Friday, Amazon said it was investigating claims made in a documentary that a subcontractor employed security guards with neo-Nazi ties to oversee the immigrant workers.
The documentary, broadcast Wednesday on the ARD public-television network, showed guards in black uniforms with HESS, after Hensel European Security Services, but also the last name of Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, emblazoned on their chests.
According to the film, security guards employed by the subcontractor scared and intimidated hundreds of temporary workers from Hungary, Poland, Spain and other European countries.
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The accusations ignited an outcry on social media and calls for consumers to think twice about placing their next order on Amazon. The company responded by pledging to investigate the claims, saying that it was in its own interest to provide a safe and secure working environment for all of its employees, temporary as well as permanent.
“Amazon does not tolerate discrimination or intimidation, and we will act swiftly to eliminate any such behavior,” said Ulrike Stoecker, a spokeswoman for the company in Germany, in a statement.
Germany is Amazon’s most important market after the United States. It recorded revenues of $8.7 billion here last year, part of the $61 billion it generated worldwide. The company, based in Seattle, employs tens of thousands of people around the world.
Heiner Reimann of the Ver.di union, which represents employee interests at a plant in Bad Hersfeld in central Germany, where the filmmakers recorded the security guards, said that the young men, sporting black bomber jackets, jackboots and short, military-style haircuts, made invasive spot-checks at the temporary residences where the workers were kept.
In the documentary, a woman from Spain who gave her name only as Silvinia, told the filmmakers that the guards kept them under constant observation.
“They go into the house when the people are not there,” she said. “And also when they are there, sleeping or taking a shower.”
Reimann said some of the men were wearing clothing made by the company Thor Steinar, a brand popular among Germany’s far-right extremists, whose clothes have been banned from the country’s Parliament building, and several German soccer stadiums.
Patrick Hensel, who heads the security company, rejected the claims that its employees had intimidated immigrant workers, as shown in the documentary. He said the security guards in question would be confronted about the accusations and that appropriate action would be taken.
Reimann said Amazon should seek to set a good example in Germany of how to combine the use of temporary workers with high standards, and should be aware of certain historical sensitivities.
“We are talking about Polish workers who were kept in a holiday camp with a fence around it and were being watched by guards,” Reimann said in a telephone interview.
“We are in Germany,” he said. “We have a certain history to respect.”