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Rewe, Penny, Edeka: 14 saleswomen tell what it's really like to work in retail

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Underpaid, sick, bullied: 14 employees from Rewe, Edeka and Penny talk about their work.

Work sick

"Colds go around, everyone is infected and the head of department just says: 'Take an ibuprofen and carry on!' And if you do call in sick, the boss will call you after the first day to see if you are healthy again. (...) On bad days I work ten hours, I get paid for eight. (...) It is simply requested, no compensation, no payment, nothing. ”- Saleswoman at an EDEKA fresh food counter. © BuzzFeed News / Getty Images

Unpaid overtime

“We start at 6:30, but we get paid from 7:00. But you have to come earlier or you won't be ready when the shop opens. (...) Our boss is actually always in the shop. If we get through the hours, then it gets in trouble. It often pulls through for days. That comes from above, that is predetermined. ”- Saleswoman at PENNY © BuzzFeed News / Getty Images

No weekends

“I've never been paid overtime. Not in all of 40 years. (...) Free on Saturdays is absolute luxury. In 2016 I had a Saturday off. Basically my relationship failed because of that. ”- Saleswoman at REWE © BuzzFeed News / Getty Images

These are just a few examples of working conditions in Germany's supermarkets.

Over the past few months, BuzzFeed News has had long discussions with 14 employees from Rewe, Edeka and Penny. They are pressured when they are sick. They often don't get paid overtime. You earn up to 30 percent below the standard wage. You are not allowed to observe rest periods on a regular basis - not accidentally, but planned. This is what all these people report, independently of one another and in unison.

The conversations and documents give a drastic insight into the problems of one of the most important German industries. More than three million people work in retail in Germany, most of them women.

Our conversations can only provide a glimpse. They are spotlights. They are certainly not representative of every employer in the retail sector - and not even of every branch of the three supermarket chains mentioned. But they do raise questions. The multitude of problems and the complaints that are repeatedly formulated in a similar manner suggest that these are not isolated cases. Structurally, something seems to be going wrong in German retail.

REWE and Penny did not respond to detailed inquiries from BuzzFeed News. EDEKA contradicts the allegations raised: “Good working conditions have a high priority for the entire EDEKA association”, writes a spokeswoman to us. “Numerous medium-sized retail businesses in the EDEKA group are not subject to any collective bargaining agreement, but many businesses are based on the tariff or offer individual services above the tariff. Because only with competent and motivated employees can they keep the EDEKA quality promise. ”The EDEKA cooperatives would expect their members to adhere to the legal requirements. However, the question of how this is effectively controlled was left unanswered by EDEKA - we provide EDEKA's detailed answer at the end of this text.



Collective agreements often only exist in theory

Since the year 2000, more and more companies and businesses have been withdrawing from collective agreements. At that time, the general binding force of the collective agreements was revoked.

Until then, there was a consensus between employers in the retail sector and the trade unions to always submit an application for a declaration of general applicability for newly concluded collective agreements. In 2000 this consensus was ended by the employers' associations and with the consent of politicians. © Andreas Rentz / Getty Images

Unions in particular accuse Edeka and Rewe of preventing collective bargaining and circumventing tariffs in their privatized markets. Rewe and Edeka have privatized numerous markets in recent years. As a rule, the private markets are no longer subject to the collective agreement, while the so-called directors' markets, which are run directly by the company, are subject to collective bargaining.

Edeka operates 7,054 stores: 5,858 of independent retailers, 1,196 so-called control stores. The privately operated markets usually do not follow the collective agreement. Many assume that this trend will continue, but both Edeka and Rewe or Penny did not answer specific questions or only answered evasively. Experts and trade unions suspect that around 40 percent of the 3,300 stores nationwide at Rewe have already been privatized. These markets are also not subject to collective bargaining agreements.

"Without a collective bargaining agreement, the decisions about working hours, Christmas and vacation pay and hourly wages are largely only made by employers," says Orhan Akman, who works for the services union ver.di in the retail trade union.

Excerpts from a "company agreement" between EDEKA and a works council. Her goal: "To enable work and leisure systems that can be planned and to keep overtime / overwork and minus hours within a manageable framework". Under §3 there it is stated that employees usually have a 5-day week. Section 4 stipulates that employees are "released from work on one Saturday a month". The practice is often different. © BuzzFeed News

Many employees go to work sick

Leon Thalberg did his training in a private Edeka store. After completing his training, he earned 1,700 euros gross per month. He quit his job recently, just about a year after completing his apprenticeship. "The general conditions are so bad that I am reorienting myself again," he says.

“I was sick once in the second year of my apprenticeship. I had a foot injury, could no longer stand, and felt dizzy and trembling. The doctor put me on sick leave for the rest of the week. I wanted to hand in the certificate in the branch when my deputy boss yelled at me: I could cash in with an injured foot. I was shaking my hands and he was yelling at me. I then cashed in, had a difference of 60 euros and still don't know what happened that day. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case, ”says Thalberg.

"Take an ibuprofen and carry on!"

“There is simply no attention to the health of employees. Colds go around, everyone is infected and the head of department just says: 'Take an ibuprofen and carry on!'. And if you do call in sick, the boss will call you after the first day to see if you are healthy again, ”says Yvonne Meister, who works at the fresh food counter in a private Edeka store. She was trained at Edeka, has worked there for 15 years and sells sausage, meat and cheese. She works full-time on a 40-hour basis and receives EUR 2000 gross per month.

Sick days mean for supermarkets that they have to pay workers who cannot work. Replacements have to be found, shifts swapped and plans changed. Time and again, salespeople tell us that employers try various means to put pressure on their employees so that they don't take sick leave. The exact handling depends on the department heads and branch managers of the respective markets - and there are certainly exemplary managers. However, all of the people we spoke to reported about the pressure to be sick as rarely as possible. Also so as not to let the other colleagues down.

Those who get sick often lose their Christmas bonus

Yvonne Meister tells how the branch management in her Edeka store wanted to reduce the number of days absent for employees through the Christmas bonus. “At the beginning we received normal Christmas bonuses. Always as a voucher. We can use it to shop in our market. This is a voluntary service in the private markets. Then came a letter saying that it will now be staggered with sick days. ”The above letter is available to BuzzFeed News.

“But my boss only said I should pull myself together, it was only five hours left. I could go, but I should think twice about it, it will then also be deducted from the Christmas bonus. ”- EDEKA employee © Andreas Rentz / Getty Images

For three years now, this has meant: With zero sick days, employees receive 75 percent of their gross wages as a voucher instead of a Christmas bonus. With a maximum of six days of illness, there is still 50 percent of the gross wage. Then continuously less. After four weeks of illness, there is no longer a voucher.

The Christmas bonus became a health bonus. With a gross monthly salary of 2000 euros, the first day of illness for Yvonne Meister means 500 euros less at the end of the year.

“That is of course an enormous incentive to keep coming. And it doesn't matter why you're on sick leave, whether it's a broken leg or a cold, it doesn't matter. I had an accident at work and broke my arm. I couldn't work for six weeks and the Christmas bonus was gone. A colleague cut himself and got blood poisoning because he kept working for the time being. Then he was sick for two weeks. Christmas bonus reduced. That is incomprehensible to me. We give everything in the markets, then something goes wrong, you hurt yourself and thanks: no Christmas bonus, ”says Meister.

When sick employees become dangerous

The pressure to show up for work sick can also be dangerous for customers. "During my training, I suddenly felt really bad, I vomited and told my boss about it right away, because we signed a health instruction," says Yvonne Meister.

In Germany everyone who works with fresh food has to sign a health instruction. With their signature, the employees affirm that they will no longer work if, for example, they have signs of gastrointestinal disease.

“But my boss only said I should pull myself together, it was only five hours left. I can go, but I should think twice about it, it will then also be deducted from the Christmas bonus, ”says Meister. She stayed until the end of the shift.

Another problem is the constant physical strain. A cashier pushes several thousand kilos of goods across the till or packs goods on the shelves every day. "Basically, one can say for all supermarkets that very little is done for employees in the area of ​​ergonomics," says Orhan Akman from the ver.di union.

"You have this sense of responsibility, you don't want to let your colleagues down and you're afraid of losing your job."

Christine Bohm has been a saleswoman for more than 40 years. Today she is employed in a private Rewe store and earns 1,800 euros gross per month for a 30-hour week. She experiences similar things every day: “Christmas is always high speed. You have to be at work at three o'clock. No food, no break. I caught the flu one winter. I felt dirty. But you have this sense of responsibility, you don't want to let your colleagues down and you're afraid of losing your job. That's hard to explain. Actually a responsibility that you shouldn't have. "

“On Christmas Eve I stood behind the counter with a fever and went straight to the hospital in the evening. Christmas was over and I was on sick leave with pneumonia. Then I'll be back in mid-January and missing 30 hours overtime. My boss just said: I don't accept sick leave between Christmas and New Year. I then threatened a lawyer and he wrote them down for me again. So I thought to myself, I don't want that anymore and quit after more than 20 years. That's awesome, ”says Bohm.

And at home, too, says Christine Bohm, superiors don't leave sick employees alone: ​​“They give you good tips when you're sick. I had the flu and was on sick leave for 14 days. He called in between and gave me tips on how to get better again faster. I can no longer hear bosses giving you such shitty tips on how to get better faster. You always have to explain where you caught the flu. They would prefer to be there with all illnesses. Although we have to sign that we have to stay at home with infectious diseases. " © John Macdougall / AFP / Getty Images

Overtime is often not paid

“I've never been paid overtime. Not in the whole forty years, ”says Christin Bohm. “I would like to work more than 30 hours, but I can't do that anymore. We have permanent staff shortages. The work that four used to do is now done by two. With overtime it is sometimes 35, sometimes 48 and sometimes even 50. The overtime that is recorded is something that can always be lost. But what's the point if my boss calls me at six in the morning and says I can come an hour later and work an overtime? "

"The work that four used to do is now done by two."

Christine Bohm's time sheet currently includes around 180 overtime hours. She estimates that she has a lot more gray overtime. Gray overtime is not registered, not reimbursed for employees and it is not recorded statistically. There are many ways in which gray overtime can accumulate. Either the markets have no technical time recording and the hours entered by hand do not correspond to the real hours. Or the salespeople are asked to stamp earlier and then continue working. Sometimes break times are calculated even though the salesperson did not take a break at all.

Leon Thalberg, also at Edeka, reports: “We have an eight-hour shift, plus a one-and-a-half hour break. But your boss keeps saying: don't take a break right now, take a little less break. Then you sometimes work from 11:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Work ends at 8 p.m. But then we still have to settle the cash register. On a good day, when I can take a break, I add half an overtime that nobody pays, on bad days I work ten hours, I get paid for eight. We have practically no overtime. It is simply required, no compensation, no payout, nothing. My boss always says he doesn't take a break either. "

"Free on Saturdays is the absolute luxury"

Since supermarkets have also been open all day on Saturdays, free Saturdays in retail are the exception - at least for our interviewees. “Everyone is needed on Saturdays, with a maximum of three to four free Saturdays a year, that's standard,” says Thalberg.

With Christin Bohm it is even worse: “Free Saturdays are absolute luxury. In 2016 I had a Saturday off. Basically, that's why my relationship failed. My friend wanted to do something, but if you stand at the counter until 10 p.m. on Saturday, you don't want to do anything anymore and after ten years my friend just didn't understand anymore. Last Christmas I was given a concert ticket. I love the group. But free, says my boss, doesn't work. So I do the early shift, drive home quickly and hope that the motorway is clear so that we can make it on time. This is my private life. " © Andreas Rentz / Getty Images

Jana Brauer works in an Edeka directing store. It is paid according to the tariff and receives 2,500 euros gross per month for a 37.5 hour week. In principle, the sellers work in their market six days a week. Brauer has worked in five different Edeka stores since 2013 and knows the situation well.

“We should actually have one Saturday off a month,” she says. Jana Brauer's duty roster is in Buzzfeed News. They show that this rule is seldom observed. In 2015 and 2016 Jana Brauer only had Saturdays off when she was on vacation or sick. Also on December 26, 2015, a public holiday.

"That is assumed"

Their company agreement, which BuzzFeed News also has, says: “The employees in the stores can be released from work on one Saturday a month at their request.” Furthermore, they can only be deployed six days a week by mutual agreement. "But that is a prerequisite and you have to fight bitterly for free Saturdays," says Jana Brauer.

“I think that only satisfied employees can do a good job if you don't have to worry about your private life. We actually work every Saturday. In addition, I only got the roster for next week in the last market on Saturday. That puts me and my colleagues under extreme pressure when you can't plan your private life. When you have a family, it becomes even more difficult.In the current market we get the roster for the coming week on Tuesday or Wednesday. Actually, it should be created four weeks in advance. "

Working Hours Act? Rest time? Not here

In her work for Edeka, Jana Brauer regularly had to disregard the actually prescribed rest period between two shifts. This is evidenced by her rosters, which BuzzFeed News has on hand, for at least four of the five markets in which she has worked. Other interviewees also describe the regular disregard of the rest period to BuzzFeed News.

Section 5 (1) of the Working Hours Act prescribes that employees must be granted an uninterrupted rest period of at least 11 hours after their work has ended. This often does not seem to be the case in individual cases.

“Our shop closes at 9 p.m. and the counter shift starts at 7 a.m. We often switch from the late shift to the early shift. It's already exhausting when you have to change shifts very often because you don't have a rhythm. Actually, we should have at least eleven hours of rest between a late shift and an early shift. But that was never actually kept for me. We tend to work until 9:15 or 9:30 p.m. and start again at 6:45 a.m. or even 6:30 a.m., ”says Brauer. That means: In some cases, Brauer only has nine hours between the individual shifts.

“That breaks you. And the employers just keep dividing up, always planning to stay below the rest times. "

“It went on for me for several years. I then complained to the works council. Now it is better. But many are afraid of losing their job and employers take advantage of that. My colleagues still don't have eleven hours of rest. It breaks you. And the employers just keep dividing up, always planning to stay below the rest periods ”, says Jana Brauer.

The tone is harsh, the pressure is great

“I worked at Rewe for over eight years. My boss was a real asshole. He always picked out who he was about to kill. He yelled at me: 'You're nothing, you can't do anything.' He blasphemed my broomstick and my ass that it was already so big and whether I wanted to gain more weight, "says Tanja Reinhardt. "I am of normal weight."

An isolated case, sure. The exception? Might not. Some interviewees also tell us about very sociable and collegial branch managers. But every interviewee knew at least one department, branch or district manager who insulted employees.

Orhan Akman from the Verdi union says: “This is a problematic development in retail. While modern companies talk about respectful communication, there is a tendency in retail, especially in the privatized markets, to have executives who say: 'I am the boss here, you do what I say.' Many are then afraid. "

"First I had to learn that I can ask my boss something"

Tanja Reinhardt knows that. For a long time she did not dare to say anything: “I believed that at some point. He always said I should be glad he didn't kick me out. I didn't dare to look for something else because nobody wants me because I'm so bad. This is anchored deeper and deeper when you have been hearing this since teaching. Then I got cardiovascular problems. I had panic attacks. Couldn't drive a car anymore. "

“Then after eight years, last year, I found out about a job in a sporting goods store. I worked one day on a trial basis and was offered the job. The next day I quit Edeka, ”says Reinhardt. “In my new job, I first had to learn that I could ask my boss something and he would give me an answer that would help me - and not an insult popping into the head. My new boss is super nice. "

"Mobbing is supported. Also among the employees. "

Many companies go to great lengths to stop bullying. Yvonne Meister says that she experienced it differently at Edeka: “Mobbing is supported. Even among the employees. If someone is sick, they say: 'Now she's sick again.' This is how the workforce is turned against each other. But it is also directed against us and it is extremely dependent on the bosses. " Tanja Reinhardt also reports similar experiences at Edeka: "Somebody always yells at you: 'Give it up, let it go faster!' Always in a tone that says: You're stupid."

Many earn up to 30 percent below the standard wage

The salespeople we spoke to earn between ten and 30 percent less than the standard wage in the private markets. Sales women sometimes have to live with gross wages of 816 euros for half a job. The saleswomen had to fight for increases or extensions.

Many are afraid of old-age poverty, including Christin Bohm: “I'm going to retire soon. What comes out of there for me and how many hours I've worked in vain, that's how I get the wailing misery. You don't get what you're due because you don't pay overtime. And you don't get the salary we deserve, because we're even paid below the tariff. "

“I got the bill and cried. I couldn't give anything to my daughter. "

“In the past few years we have still received a Christmas bonus of 500 euros as a voucher. I always used it to buy my daughter something for Christmas. She already supports me financially. And last year that was deleted without replacement. I got the bill and cried. I couldn't give anything to my daughter. The boss later said that the sales were not right, we had to sell more so that we could get something again, ”says Christin Bohm. © John Macdougall / AFP / Getty Images

Jessika Gerste completed an apprenticeship in retail. Then she started in a private Rewe store with a part-time contract: 20 hours per week, 816 euros gross, limited to six months. “Trading itself is fun. But working conditions are getting worse and worse. I studied for three years, want to work and you only get part-time contracts in the east. I had to top up the office. I've begged for a long time that the hours should be increased. All the dealers only want to hire part-time. Half a force, limited in time, is easier to replace in the event of illness. You are forced into part-time work. "

After a year and a half, barley is finally getting an increase: 35 hours per week, 1,500 gross, again limited to one year. “Always having a contract at a short distance is a pain in the ass. The uncertainty. I want to work, we also have great customers, but if I have a chance for another job, I'll be gone. "

Too few employees, too many tasks

Penny has also been part of the Rewe Group since 1989, the stores are managed by the group of companies - and they are subject to collective bargaining agreements. And yet, in discussions with BuzzFeed News, employees reported on problems independently of one another. In particular, the understaffing in the branches and the pressure from district managers put a strain on the employees who spoke to us. © Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Each Penny Market is given a number of hours per week, depending on sales. The branch manager must divide the number of hours between his employees. Johanna Fischer herself was a branch manager at Penny for six months. “As a store manager, I worked for at least 60 hours. However, only the contractual 45 hours are paid for. The problem as a store manager: either you work more yourself, or you let your employees work more because the hours Penny allocates simply cannot be done. We simply have too few employees in the markets. The area is getting bigger and bigger and more tasks are added ”, says Johanna Fischer.

Silke Neustadt has been with Penny for more than 20 years. “Our everyday life looks like this: We start at 6:30, but we get paid from 7:00. But you have to come earlier or you won't be ready when the shop opens. Then one of them is at the checkout, the other is clearing, emptying the deposit machine, using the baking machine and when five customers are at the checkout, you run forward and open a till. The areas have become bigger and bigger, we have more tasks, but there are two of us in the market. And then we are advising customers more and more often. This is really stress. The break is usually lost when the deposit machine beeps or the cancellation is at the checkout. "

How do all these things get on the shelves? Who are the people who make sure we can shop - and how are they? © Jack Taylor / Getty Images

Johanna Fischer explains that at Penny, the district managers are decisive. You control several markets, pay attention to sales and allocate working hours. “The pressure comes from above. They look closely at the costs. The employees are assigned according to turnover, but you also have the space to walk and do the work with a little less turnover. In our branch we get five pallets of shelf goods, plus four roll containers for frozen goods, plus ten to 15 pallets of beverage goods. We have to unpack that with one person in four hours. That is not feasible. "

Silke Neustadt says: “Our boss is actually always in the shop. If we get through the hours, then it gets in trouble. It often pulls through for days. That comes from above, that is predetermined. For example, the Christmas setup, which should be done at the beginning of the week. Then the district manager comes a day later and asks: Why is that not done yet? But you can't do it at all. You can't do things like that. I have to deal with the one in the wool more often. He then threatens me: I could go to Aldi if I didn't like it. I don't have to work at Penny. I'm in my late forties and a young guy from the university wants to give me utopian orders and then insults us: 'You are totally sweating.' He wants to get rid of me. Not with me! But many colleagues don't dare to do it. "

"I want something to change."

Many salespeople emphasized in the interviews that they do not want to harm their employer. They enjoy doing their job, but would like working conditions to be improved.

“I don't want to harm the company, I want to shake it up. They're running in one direction, it'll end like the USA. Sales are currently at the expense of the employees, ”says Jana Brauer.

“I don't want it to be said now: Don't buy from Penny anymore. I want something to change, ”says Johanna Fischer.

“I want us to get a fair salary for our work. That I can make a living from it, ”says Leon Thalberg.

The rosters and accounts from the supermarkets

Constantly falling short of the prescribed rest periods of 11 hours, hourly deductions in the event of illness, working hours stamped by others or subsequently changed - the documents available to BuzzFeed News support these allegations.

EDEKA's answers to our questions

The knowledge gathered here is the result of long, in some cases multiple, discussions with 14 salespeople as well as with experts and politicians. We have changed the names of the people and some details in the narratives because everyone, without exception, is afraid of reprisals from their superiors and of legal consequences. The stories are representative of the problems of an entire industry.

Do you work in retail yourself and want to talk to us about grievances? Get in touch with us and get in touch at [email protected]