Workers 'grossly abused' by German supermarket giant

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The Independent Online

The German cut-price supermarket chain Lidl was accused yesterday of grossly mistreating staff at 200 of its stores by forcing them to do unpaid work, subjecting them to routine interrogations for suspected theft and refusing to allow cashiers to go to the lavatory.

The German cut-price supermarket chain Lidl was accused yesterday of grossly mistreating staff at 200 of its stores by forcing them to do unpaid work, subjecting them to routine interrogations for suspected theft and refusing to allow cashiers to go to the lavatory.

The catalogue of complaints against Lidl management was in a "black book" report by the shop workers' trade union, Verdi, which spent more than two years interviewing the company's employees.

Lidl is Germany's second-largest and fastest growing cut-price store chain and employs 151,000 people.

"The company's business success goes hand in hand with dreadful working conditions for its staff," said Franziska Wiethold, a Verdi board member. The Verdi report cited Lidl workers who spoke of a "climate of fear" at the stores. Staff said they were required to do unpaid extra work shifting products before the stores opened and after they closed.

Management was said to routinely search the lockers, pockets, clothing and cars of staff to ensure they had not stolen products. Workers who failed to live up to the management's expectations were frequently falsely accused of theft and "interrogated", the report said. "There are examples of forced resignations at stores throughout Germany," Mrs Wiethold said. "Those affected were put under massive pressure to sign their own dismissal documents."

One Lidl shopworker said she had been subjected to a three-hour interrogation by managers after being falsely accused of pocketing the deposits on empty bottles. She was asked to resign. "I was completely shattered," the shopworker said. "After that I was ready to sign my own death warrant."

Other staff said going to the lavatory was regarded as a "luxury" by management. One former cashier said: "I did not even have time to go to the toilet. Leaving the till meant being told off, so I sometimes went home with wet underwear."

Lidl responded bitterly yesterday and claimed Verdi had mounted a campaign against the chain that was supported by "anonymous defamations". In a statement, Lidl said: "Given the rapid growth rate of the Lidl concern, it is unavoidable that in some exceptional cases, shop managers are employed who have weaknesses when it comes to dealing with staff."

The company accused Verdi of deliberately singling out Lidl because the chain store has trade union members at only a handful of its 2,500 German supermarkets. It said it had dismissed 20 shop managers after complaints from shop staff, and denied it obliged its workers to do unpaid overtime.

But Lidl defended its policy of staff searches. "Despite rigorous checks, losses due to theft by customers and shop staff amount to ¤250m [£173m] a year," the company said.

Lidl is fighting a bitter battle for market supremacy with its larger rival, the Aldi cut-price chain. The company has taken on 45,000 staff across Europe over the past three years and 20,000 new jobs have been created in Germany.

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