Laudator: Rena Tangens, FoeBuD e.V.
The Big Brother Award in the "Industrial Relations" category is won by the
("Foundation"), Co., in Neckarsulm,
represented by the founder and "godfather" of the group, Dieter Schwarz for the almost slave-like treatment of its employees.
The low-price German supermarket chain Lidl is living proof that it doesn't take the latest technology to keep people under control, and keep them as serfs with no rights or privacy. The Lidl "case" also shows that "data protection" does not mean protecting data for its own sake, but for the sake of protecting people and their personal rights.
Lidl is cheap.
That's why many people will be unhappy to hear that their regular supermarket is driving prices down by treating its workers in inhumane ways.
The reports reaching us from inside the Lidl concern are just unbelievable. They seem medieval, at least pre-industrial, and uncivilised. We will try to break these inside reports to you gently.
Let's start by looking back: to the Future Store. You may remember - in last year's laudation for Metro Group (a different retail chain), we had a wonderful scenario for the supermarket of the future, including this piece:
"Gerd J., supermarket assistant, is excited about the new RFID technology ? Coming home from work, he finds a letter from the executive with a caution. It says he's been to the toilet nine times a day, spending about 72 minutes there on average. This is 27 minutes above the target, an amount that will be deducted from his working time in the future. Shocked, he searchers his supermarket coat and finds an RFID in the collar."
Lidl, too, regards the valuable minutes employees spend on the toilets as a big nuisance. What was solved with High Tech in last year's scenario can be achieved much simpler and, above all, *cheaper*: Toilet visits during working time are forbidden - end of story.
That's no joke. It has been reported from Lidl stores in the Czech Republic.
But, say the reports, there are exceptions, after all, you mustn't believe they're inhuman: Female employees having "that time of the month" are allowed to go to the toilet, apparently. Although, in order to gain that privilege, they must be wearing a widely visible head band. A disclosure of personal data, without a computer or even a byte being involved.
On that account, a simple solution. And, most of all, *cheap*.
You can't understand either why the Czech press was kicking up a fuss about the German supermarket chain, can you?
The leading retail newspaper Lebensmittelzeitung (Food News) reports that the scandalous head band rule has now been abolished by Lidl.
UNI commerce is an international trade union for employees of multinational companies. They raised the issue at the so-called "social dialog" at the EU in Brussels in late September and called on Lidl to apologize to its workers. Lidl denied the reports, saying they were nothing but rumours.
But don't be tempted to believe that we're getting such reports from Czechia alone! The following items are from Germany:
- Bielefeld. An anonymous nomination for the Lidl group is received by the Big Brother Awards jury. They start to investigate.
- The Nuremberg region. The deputy manager of a Lidl store is handing in her notice, after a three-hour long "third degree" interview from the management of the sales department. Also present are an auditor and a Lidl lawyer. The official charge is a theft of 12,50 Euros of deposit money. The auditor is dictating what she is to write in her notice, and she is writing it there and then. "I was threatened. The psychological pressure was so strong, I would have signed my own death warrant", she says to a journalist. She had been been happy to work 60 to 90 minutes of unpaid overtime per day. But six years ago she had successfully intervened to have Lidl pay overtime to other employees.
- Ansbach. Lidl store employees are getting their working time paid until 8 p.m. exactly (the time when shops close in Germany). But they normally have work to do until about 10. The early shift starts at 6 a.m., but paid time only starts at 7.30. Lidl calls this overtime "voluntary preparation and completion work".
- Schleswig-Holstein. In an annex to an employment contract, the following clause is found: "The employer is given the right to check the employee's bags." Several Lidl workers report anonymously to the ver.di trade union that while being away on sick leave, they have been visited at home by Lidl supervisors.
- The Nuremberg region. The deposit refund counter in a store has been fitted with a video camera. Not even the store manager or his deputy have been informed. The two noticed a new hole having appeared in the ceiling when they came into the store one morning and found the doors having been locked in an unusual way. They suspected a break-in at first and reported their findings to the centre. The sales manager then tried to cover up the installation of the cameras. At what times the camera at the refund counter is active, who gets to see the recordings and when they get deleted is completely unclear. The formation of "workers' councils" (i.e. the right, guaranteed by law to the workforce of companies above a certain size, to elect representatives, which would then have negotiating rights on several issues including employee surveillance) has been "suppressed by the company, with determination and by the toughest measures", according to representatives of the ver.di union.
- Saarland. According to the ver.di union, baby phones have been found in Lidl stores, near telephones and in staff rooms. At the same time cars thought to belong to sales department managers were seen in front of the store. It is suspected that these cars were used to eavesdrop on conversations.
- November 2003. Former Lidl store managers report that they were instructed to check employees' hand bags, coat pockets, car boots and glove boxes every two weeks.
- The Nuremberg region. Since January 2004, employees of a Lidl store experience a flood of test buyers and other inspections. These accusations are raised by a deputy store manager who says she was forced to hand in her notice. Other employees confirm to the ver.di union that test buyers setting certain traps are a frequently used method to force employees in higher wage groups and union members out of their jobs.
But: Lidl is cheap.
Employees are not the only cost factors, taxes are another unpleasant side effect of entrepreneurial activity. And when it comes to taxes, you could hardly accuse Lidl of being negligent about privacy.
Lidl is among some 460 companies who have set themselves up with a letter-box in the North Frisian village of Norderfriedrichskoog, which by pure coincidence didn't charge any local business tax before this year. They reside there under an inconspicuous name: Alpha Finance, Ltd.
Lidl, or rather, the Schwarz Group, is a convoluted empire of about 600 singular companies and "foundations". By splitting up into so many companies, the concern is extremely hard to oversee, and many subsidiary companies evade legal publishing obligations.
There are no publications of any company internals. At Lidl, not only the company results but even the number of stores are "classified" information.
And to Mr Schwarz, the master of the Lidl empire, his own privacy is very dear indeed. He takes extra care to ensure that no photographs of him exist - that's why he has stayed away from honour ceremonies far more flattering than the Big Brother Awards.
Lidl is cheap.
And Lidl exemplifies a philosophy that is supported by many business leaders in the current climate of a weakening economy: the environment, human rights, human dignity, freedom of opinion, worker's rights, basic democratic rights - nothing but expensive luxuries that businesses don't want to afford.
But we should ask: Can we in the 21st century afford this kind of business? Can we afford to shop so cheap? Is it worth the price - the price people pay when they must hand in their civil rights at the company gate, to avoid losing their jobs? This is a question that every single customer should ask.
Congratulations, Mr Schwarz.