"The distribution centre really looked like a prison with a big gate and security guards standing in front of it.” Allard van Gent

"These men wanted to show off their screaming skills and really made a sport out of firing people.” Allard van Gent

A new start in a new city is not always easy. Moving to your new hometown means looking for jobs and making sure you can pay your bills. The Dutch Allard van Gent moved to Berlin 2,5 years ago, full of energy to make it as a journalist, text writer and translator. To get some quick cash in the first months, he decided to take a job in the distribution centre of internet shop Zalando. “I thought it would be fun, but it was like a prison.”

The 47-year-old lived nine years on the popular island Mallorca, before returning to his roots in the Netherlands. Wanting to live in a bigger city again, he looked for places in Amsterdam. “Then I compared the rent of houses in Amsterdam and in Berlin and the decision was made easily,” he smiles. “Berlin is so much cheaper!”

Like a prison
As an educated text writer with years of experience with German tourists on Mallorca, Allard started a translating study. “But in the beginning, I didn’t have any assignments yet, so I needed a job quickly.” Luckily, Berlin is home to a lot of startups and bigger businesses. A job agency helped him getting a job at Zalando.

In a minivan with other Zalando employees Allard was driven to the south of Berlin, Grossbeeren, where the enormous distribution centre of Zalando is located. “It’s something like Ikea without any walls, that’s how big it was,” Allard explains. “It was strange, it really looked like a prison with a big gate and security guards standing in front of it.”

Shouting orders
Inside, it didn’t get any better. Allard: “I was hired to pack the boxes, so I would put the clothes people ordered inside a box and close it.  The leaders of the group were mean men, screaming at you when you made a mistake. After a while I noticed that these men wanted to show off their screaming skills and really made a sport out of firing people.”

Working in the centre meant standing for eight hours straight and packing boxes the whole time. You have to ask if you want to go to the toilet, which was never really appreciated by the black-clothes-wearing leaders. “And sometimes, they would even walk you to the toilet,” Allard says.

He noticed things got really bad when a colleague of his came to a night shift with him, but fell ill. “They shouted at him that they couldn’t use him and that he should go home. The location is so far out of Berlin – at night there is no way to get there with public transport. This sick young man walked around at night for hours, waiting for the morning bus to come.”

During a nightshift, after almost six weeks into his job, Allard overhead the leaders saying that they wanted to fire him. “I thought I misheard, but that night they shouted my name and said they didn’t want me here any longer. I was too flabbergasted to respond, I thought they made a joke. What did I ever do wrong? At 3am I was standing outside, suddenly jobless.”

At his job agency, Allard noticed that many other people got fired over the last weeks. “It became clear to me that Zalando just doesn’t treat their personnel as human beings. They are a necessary evil because they didn’t invent robots yet to pack the boxes. And due to the lack of jobs here and no guaranteed minimum wage, people are willing to accept a lot as an employee.” Allard moved on with his life, found a job at another distribution centre where he could earn the money to pay his bills.

But in the beginning of this year, Allard stumbled upon a documentary of the German broadcaster ZDF about the working conditions at Zalando. “I decided that I needed to go public with my story as well. I wrote a blog about my experiences – it was picked up by another blogger, who spread my story. Soon, another documentary showed working conditions at Amazon. So I guess Zalando is not the exception.”

Dutch and Belgian media started picking up Allard’s story. “Suddenly my website got thousands of visitors!” It’s a bit strange to Allard. “Zalando was a very negative experience to me, but through them I also got a lot of publicity, which really helped me start my own translating and writing agency. I can now live from that and don’t need to work in a distribution centre anymore.”

Zalando will always be part of him however. “I do feel that it is my obligation to spread the word about the working conditions in these centres. People just order stuff online and can send items back for free. They should know the truth about these webshops and decide if they still want to buy,” Allard says. “I will never order anything there.”

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