A parcel delivery man races into a crowd, and there are suspicions of a shooting spree. In the “Tatort” episode “Ghost Ride”, TV detectives Charlotte Lindholm (Maria Furtwängler) and Anais Schmitz (Florence Kasumba) investigate the low-wage environment of the parcel services and their subcontractors. Are the working conditions there really as bad as portrayed in the criminal case?

In fact, the parcel industry has long been a booming industry and a problem at the same time. For years, parcel drivers have reported a system in which precarious working conditions and poor pay prevail. The subcontractors and sub-subcontractors commissioned by many parcel services sometimes deal creatively with occupational safety laws. The pressure on drivers is particularly high there, regulations are sometimes circumvented, and many things are not transparent from the outside.

Some time ago, research by the undercover format “Team Wallraff” provided a particularly intensive insight into daily work practice. One reporter himself was hired by a subcontractor – or a sub-subcontractor – who delivered packages for Amazon. He experienced first-hand what the enormous time pressure under which parcel drivers work means.

Instead of the eight hours actually planned, the undercover reporter worked ten to eleven hours to complete his daily workload. In practice, the prescribed breaks are often not adhered to, he reported. Even finding time for pee breaks is a problem on the scheduled tours. Some drivers told him that due to the lack of toilet facilities, people sometimes pee in bottles in the car. It is unclear how often parcel drivers actually resort to this emergency measure.

At the time, Amazon distanced itself from the conditions at the subcontractor, but had to admit that it was “unfortunately a fact that there are companies in the delivery industry that do not comply with the regulations.” Amazon is also aware of the toilet problem. The company provides its drivers with a list of nearby toilet locations. However, it is “a reality for every delivery company that some drivers have difficulty finding a suitable place to take a break.”

Parcel drivers are monitored at every step via their scanner and corresponding apps. The digital helpers are needed to follow the specified delivery route, but also make it clear who is too slow. In practice, the break and working times specified by the devices can often be avoided. Everything is correct on paper, even if someone works unpaid overtime to avoid getting into trouble for being an underperformer.

The “Package Carrier Protection Act”, which has been in force since November 2019, was actually intended to prevent questionable practices among subcontractors. It stipulates that parcel services themselves are liable if subcontractors they hire engage in undeclared work or social benefit and social security fraud to the detriment of employees. Companies are only exempt from liability if they commission a subcontractor who has been classified as reliable in advance as part of a “prequalification”.

However, there are different views on how well the law prevents abuse. During an evaluation last year, the federal government came to the conclusion that the law is working. The proportion of employees in the industry subject to social security contributions has increased since 2019, and many subcontractors are trying to obtain prequalification and are ensuring that their contributions are paid correctly.

Employee representatives see it differently. “Inspections repeatedly reveal poor or illegal working conditions, including violations of the minimum wage law and the posting of workers law, as well as bogus self-employment and disregard for necessary occupational health and safety measures,” writes the Verdi union. She is therefore calling for a general ban on parcel services from commissioning subcontractors within the framework of work contracts. Parcel services should be obliged to employ drivers directly.

A scientific report from the trade union-affiliated Hans Böckler Foundation also recommends a ban on subcontractors and temporary workers for the entire parcel industry, similar to what was implemented in the meat industry. A ban is effective against abuses and legally permissible, according to the conclusion of the study published in September.

The political debate about this is in full swing. A year ago, a majority of the federal states in the Federal Council spoke out in favor of introducing a law that would ban subcontractors in the parcel industry. The federal government didn’t pick up the ball. But now the federal states could impose higher hurdles for subcontractors as part of the upcoming modernization of the postal law. Lower Saxony, together with other federal states, has submitted an application to change the law so that subcontractors and work contracts in the parcel industry are banned.

The parcel industry is accordingly alarmed. The Federal Association of Parcel and Express Logistics (BIEK), which represents the interests of 4,000 courier, express and parcel services with around 258,000 employees, published its own report a few days ago: a ban on subcontracting would be a legally inadmissible intervention in the industry, explains it Labor law professor Stefan Greiner from the University of Bonn. The federal states that are in favor of a ban are “mistaken in the assumption that the parcel industry has a fundamental problem with exploitative structures,” writes the lobby association. There is “no empirical evidence of a systemic problem in the industry.”

Here you can read the criticism of the current “crime scene”