How Amazon Exported American Working Conditions To Europe

POZNAN, Poland — The first full-day strike at an Amazon warehouse was on May 14, 2013. Seven hundred workers in all picketed outside three facilities in Germany, the company’s biggest market outside the US. Carrying banners reading “Today we fight for RESPECT,” they demanded higher wages, more permanent rather than short-term contracts, and an end to productivity quotas.

A third of the workforce was off the job at the three centrally located fulfillment centers — a surge of collective action Amazon had never before faced anywhere. “It felt like a historic day,” said Andreas Gangl, who started at Amazon’s warehouse in Bad Hersfeld, Germany, in 2008 and worked in the returns department. “I think it was the best day in the world.”

Amazon, which has consistently opposed unionization efforts throughout its history, appeared to be reeling. The strikers, who had unionized two years earlier under their country’s robust labor laws, won significant concessions: Hourly wages rose from 9.83 euros to 11.62. The company decreased its reliance on temp agency employees, by the union’s estimate, from around 75% of the workforce to 25%, supplanted by employees with full company benefits and longer entry-level contracts. And Amazon agreed to stop firing workers for failing to meet productivity quotas in all three striking warehouses.

But the retail giant had another plan brewing. Two months after the first German strike, Amazon announced that it would expand into central Europe for the first time. Over the next eight years, the company opened 12 fulfillment centers across neighboring Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia. More than 30,000 workers in those three countries now pump out products for Western European customers for less than half the wages of their German counterparts, and with none of the labor protections the Germans had just won.

“Why do they build warehouses in Poland? Because it’s not Germany.”

A BuzzFeed News investigation based on documents and dozens of interviews has found that working conditions at Amazon facilities in central Europe resemble a pressure cauldron where staff often work past the point of exhaustion to meet ever-increasing quotas to avoid termination. Polish government inspectors have found that workers were under more physical strain than legally acceptable. Internal data showed production expectations rising every week for at least a third of warehouse jobs. Staffers in three central European facilities told BuzzFeed News they regularly witnessed colleagues fainting from exhaustion. Four employees said they were reprimanded for trying to organize or advocate for better working conditions. One former HR officer in Szczecin, Poland, said he fired hundreds of people in the course of one year, including some for using more than three sick days in one month.

“Why do they build warehouses in Poland?” the HR officer said. “Because it’s not Germany.”

The expansion across central Europe was unprecedented. For years, Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia were the only countries with Amazon warehouses but no Amazon website — and though a Polish site went up in 2021, the other two nations still have none. For the first time, the company entered countries solely for their labor, without an interest in their consumer markets.

The plan paid off. Within a year, the warehouses in Poland became the corporation’s most productive in the world, delivering hundreds of thousands of packages every day to Germany and other Western European countries. The strategy’s success reflected a model Amazon has honed for years; the company had developed its highest volume fulfillment centers by exploiting weak enforcement mechanisms in countries with labor standards similar to the place where Amazon first rose to dominance, the US.

In Poland, Amazon is able to run an operation “more close to what the US is doing,” said a former senior manager in Poland who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. Amazon’s most productive warehouses had long been in the US; as the company expanded through Poland and across central Europe, it exported efficiency tactics honed under American labor laws.

Many workers in those countries welcomed the Amazon fulfillment centers, which are among the biggest warehouses in central Europe, with a forest of yellow shelves boasting the company's unparalleled inventory and a state-of-the-art cafeteria featuring big-screen TVs, video game consoles, and colorful chairs. For a generation of workers who grew up after the Cold War, Amazon’s arrival was emblematic of a new stage in their countries’ transition from the former East Bloc communism to Western-style capitalism. Amazon pays higher than minimum wage in each country, offers to cover up to 95% of schooling or vocational programs for employees with more than a year on the job, and provides bus service even more than 100 miles away — free in Poland and Czechia, 24 euros a month in Slovakia. More than a dozen central European workers who spoke to BuzzFeed News expressed pride at being a part of one of the most successful companies in the world. “For me, this is America,” said a worker in Poznan who requested anonymity because they feared losing their job. “This is America in Poland.”

As in America, in Poland Amazon benefits not just from looser workplace requirements, but lesser consequences for breaking labor laws. Judges in at least three cases in 2018 and 2019 ruled that the company used wrongful firing practices, though under Polish law local judgments can influence future lawsuits but not force a change in business practices. From 2014 to 2018, according to a BuzzFeed News review of Polish court documents, the inspectorate observed 117 violations on 12 of its visits to Poland warehouses and issued fines totaling $4,609 — equivalent to less than six months of wages for its lowest-paid employees.

“In 30 years, I’ve never seen a company that has avoided regulations as effectively as Amazon,” said Jarosław Łucka, a former corporate compliance director who was commissioned by a Polish court to inspect the Poznan facility in 2018. “They don’t care about the law here. They’re willing to just pay the fines.”

In response to a list of questions for this story, Amazon spokesperson Stephan Eichenseher said that the company selects fulfillment center locations “based on multiple factors such as transport infrastructure, the local labor market, business needs and construction timelines.” He disputed allegations that the company has mistreated employees in central Europe. “It’s in our interest to create the best working conditions and retain the best talent,” he said. “While we always strive to do our best for our employees and our customers, we know we always have more work to do. It is our priority to always be fully compliant with all applicable labor laws, and if something isn’t, then we investigate and act immediately.”

In the US in recent months, Amazon workers have begun breaking through the company’s efforts to prevent unions: A facility in New York voted to unionize in April, and two other facilities are contesting close losses by filing charges with the National Labor Relations Board accusing the corporation of violating labor laws.

Workers organizing in Poland, though, have continued to hit walls that their counterparts in Western Europe have been able to bypass, according to union representatives and five employees. As unionizing efforts in America have gained steam over the past three years, managers in Poznan “started to act more and more aggressive toward us,” said Magda Malinowska, a union organizer who began working at the Poznan facility in 2014. “Managers tell us that those they find out are in the union will get the worst jobs on the floor. Many people are scared to join.”

Though she had been part of organizing efforts for nearly eight years without suffering any repercussions, Malinowska said she suddenly sensed a target on her back in the months after the pandemic started, with managers reprimanding her for spreading union information while she was on the clock. When a coworker died during a night shift in September, Malinowska said, she stepped outside the building to call the union’s lawyer. Her managers accused her of taking photos of paramedics transporting the body into an ambulance, which they called a violation of company policy. Eichenseher, the Amazon spokesperson, declined to specify what policy Malinowska violated but said that she “refused to follow appropriate social behavior,” describing the incident as “an unacceptable and disrespectful action.”

Two months later, Malinowska received notice that she was fired.

Shortly after Amazon opened a fulfillment center in Poznan, Poland, in 2014, a group of its senior managers traveled to the US to tour the company’s most productive warehouses, in Tennessee and Delaware.

“We were there to see how they did it,” said a senior manager on the trip who requested anonymity to preserve his relationship with the company.

Unlike in Germany, where any group of at least 10 employees can form a union and hold a legal strike, in Poland more than half of a workplace, regardless of union membership, must approve. While individual fulfillment centers in Germany and elsewhere in Europe are registered as stand-alone entities, the ten warehouses in Poland collectively exist by law as a single workplace, which means any strike would require approval from at least 10,000 employees across all the country’s facilities.

In Germany — where companies with at least 2,000 workers must apportion half of their board of director seats to nonmanagement employees, giving rank-and-file workers an equal say in warehouse policies — none of Amazon’s 15 facilities employs more than 1,800 people. Similar “codetermination” laws apply to Amazon warehouses across Western Europe, where only one fulfillment center employs more than 3,000 people, a contrast to central European countries where even the biggest companies don’t have to grant employees more than a third of board seats. In Poznan, as well as in Wrocław and Prague, each fulfillment center employs around 7,000 workers during peak weeks — a scale matched by its US facilities.

With the American-like size came an onslaught of orders and pressure to clear them as quickly as the facilities across the ocean did. As he observed the US warehouses, the senior manager was impressed by how much bigger they were than those in Germany, with rows of long packing stations and multistory “picking-towers,” the library of shelves holding thousands of assorted products. He took notes on how the Americans kept the flow steady. Upon returning to Poznan, he installed a longer chute for outgoing parcels and a manual address-stamping station.

The equipment upgrades in Poznan were completed in time for the 2014 pre-Christmas rush. In a conference call with top Amazon officials, including Steve Harman, the director of European operations, a senior operator at the warehouse remarked that he believed Poznan could break the productivity record set in the US, according to the former senior manager from Poland, who was on the call. The top officials agreed. When the peak period hit, the senior manager said, Amazon’s upper management in Europe redirected more orders than usual to Poland to see how much its fulfillment centers could process at full capacity. “They wanted this win,” the senior manager said.

The Poznan warehouse shipped 1.02 million packages in 24 hours at its highest point that winter, the first in Europe to hit seven figures in a day and just short of the Delaware record of 1.1 million, according to the former senior manager. The following December, with orders again funneled to Poland fulfillment centers, the Poznan warehouse exceeded the American mark, a record that lasted three days before the Wrocław facility surpassed it. “We smashed it,” said another former manager, who was based at the Wrocław facility.

For their efforts, the workers at the record-breaking facilities were rewarded with Amazon-branded T-shirts.

“The worst days were when we have to hit a record,” Malinowska said. Managers pushed them harder, she said, by raising voices and reminding them their jobs were on the line. “For us, it’s hell.”

As strikes swept Western Europe in 2015, Poznan and Wrocław picked up the slack. Anticipating work stoppages in Germany, France, the UK, Italy, and Spain during the mid-July Prime Day peak, managers in Poznan announced a mandatory hour of overtime for all employees. In an act of solidarity with the strikers, a group of Poznan workers organized a brief slowdown. For the 11th hour of their shift, they placed only a single item — rather than several to a dozen — into each bin that left their station, triggering backlogs on the conveyer belts that carried items to the packing area. The slowdown caused a 30% dip in processing speed, the former senior manager said.

Amazon’s system is tightly monitored, with items scanned by employees at every stage, and it didn’t take long for managers to identify 16 people linked to the single-item bins. All were fired or signed mutual termination agreements, according to the facility’s union stewards.

“There are situations in which we do not see the possibility of further cooperation with the employee,” Amazon spokesperson Eichenseher said in response to a question about the incident. “In this case we have no choice but to exercise the right to terminate the employment contract.”

At least two sued the company for wrongful termination but lost. Polish law wasn’t on their side.

As is the case at Amazon warehouses everywhere, the company’s management in Poland, Slovakia, and Czechia rely on a constant stream of new workers to cycle in.

To fill its new operations in the region, Amazon recruited far beyond the cities closest to the facilities, running promotional campaigns in towns within a 100-mile radius. Daniela, who lives around 30 miles from the warehouse in Slovakia, learned about the job from a man handing out flyers at a bus station. Henryk, who lives in Lobez, around 55 miles from the Szczecin facility, heard about the job from a neighbor. Kate, who lives about 50 miles from the Prague warehouse, saw an ad online. One worker in Prague and another in Szczecin had been living in Ukraine when they came across a posting on Facebook from a temp agency. Others saw ads on buses and billboards. The former HR officer in Szczecin said he found on the bottom of a stack of cash he’d withdrawn from an ATM a slip of paper announcing openings at the city’s new facility.

Gabriel, a 57-year-old who got a job at the Slovakia facility, lives in Nové Zámky, a rural village where job options are more limited than in bigger cities like Bratislava. He worked in the returns department, where workers unpack boxes, inspect items for damage, then sort them based on whether they can be resold.

Though he performed the same duties that Gangl did in Germany, he was unaware that he worked under different conditions than his counterparts to the west. While Gangl and his returns teammates in Bad Hersfeld sit in chairs while working their eight hours, Gabriel and colleagues in Bratislava stood through their 10-hour shifts. While Gangl no longer had to meet productivity requirements, Gabriel struggled to make his quotas.

“Everything was about productivity,” he said. “It was hard for me. It was all so stressful, working under that kind of pressure.”

“Maybe if I was 100% healthy, I would be able to hang on at Amazon.”

Gabriel hoped to keep the job as long as he could, but to do that he had to raise his numbers. He remembers Oct. 22, 2017, his 19th day as an Amazon employee, as being a particularly stressful shift. A manager, bearing a stack of papers listing the required numbers, “kept coming back to us to check how are we meeting the productivity targets,” he said. “All the time.” And so Gabriel moved faster, unpacking the boxes arriving on a conveyer belt and placing the items inside into bins nearby, three or four times each minute.

Halfway into his shift, Gabriel started to feel “really sick,” he said. He was dizzy, lightheaded, and suddenly fatigued. He felt a pain in his chest. He said he went to the infirmary, but there was no medic in that night, so he described his symptoms to a manager and an HR rep, who gave him coffee. “I suppose they were concerned to some extent, but it felt inadequate,” he said.

The fatigue and pain only increased as he sat there. He told them that he wanted to go to the hospital. They called him a cab. “As soon as we step into the emergency room, I passed out, and the doctors had to resuscitate me,” he said. “Then they told me I had a heart attack and that I literally came there at the last minute.” A coworker and a union representative corroborated his account.

He was off his feet for five months. Then he returned to his job at the Amazon warehouse. “And again, I ended up in the hospital,” he said. It wasn’t a heart attack this time, merely a bout of exhaustion. He left the job after that and now works as a security guard for less pay than what he made at Amazon. “Maybe if I was 100% healthy,” he said, “I would be able to hang on at Amazon.”

The quotas are announced every fourth Wednesday. Minimum rates are set each week based on the 80th percentile of performers the previous week; in other words, the bottom fifth of workers had to increase their productivity to avoid a reprimand, which is called “feedback” in company language. As the employee handbook warned, a worker would be recommended for termination if they received six feedbacks in a year.

During one 12-week stretch, from March 7 to May 30, 2018, according to internal rate sheets reviewed by BuzzFeed News, hourly processing quotas increased for 37 of 93 jobs in the Poznan warehouses, including from 104 items to 116 for small-/medium-item packers, 107 to 120 for small-item pickers, 269 to 322 for small-item stowers, and 472 to 500 for sorters on the rebin team. Minimum rates decreased for only four jobs.

“Like most companies, we have performance expectations for every Amazonian — whether they’re a corporate employee or fulfillment center associate — and we measure actual performance against those expectations,” Eichenseher said. “The vast majority of our employees easily achieve their goals.”

From the start, Amazon workers in Poland have to compete with their colleagues to hold onto their jobs. Applicants searching for entry-level associate jobs in Poznan or Wrocław on Amazon’s website are redirected to temp agencies, which supply the company with workers who start on one-month contracts. In Poland, 39% of “low-status” workers are employed through temp agencies, triple the rate in Germany. Temp workers who complete three straight one-month subcontracts, the maximum under Polish law, get a chance at a full-time one-year contract with health insurance and other company benefits, as long as they make it through a three-month trial period during which Amazon can legally fire them for any reason. Those retained at the end of their one-year contract graduate to a permanent contract, which offers more protection from termination, as required under European Union regulations limiting the use of fixed-term staffing.

Experienced associates on permanent contracts learn to keep a pace that just barely hits the week’s quota to help minimize its growth. Some hold informal competitions over who can get closest to the minimum rate without going under, two workers said. But those on short-term contracts, who make up more than half of the Poznan warehouse’s staff some months, don’t know what rate they need to hit to get rehired when their end date comes — only that Amazon will retain an undefined number of the top performers among them, based on the latest shipping projections.

“I try to work at 150% rate because I know they won’t prolong my contract if I don’t,” said one Poznan worker on a short-term contract who declined to be named because she feared losing her job for speaking publicly. “They really wear us down.”

In 2018, the country’s National Labor Inspectorate, known by its Polish acronym PIP, ordered a test to measure the energy expended by Amazon workers. Officials from PIP’s Work Environment Research Section in Gdańsk arrived in Poznan on June 20; over two days, they hooked up workers at five stations to a device called a MWE-1 meter, a rubber mask attached to a tubular machine that measures breathing to calculate the kilocalories burned during a shift. Similar tests were scheduled at other facilities across the country. In all, the agency aimed to measure energy levels of 11 different Amazon warehouse jobs.

Jobs that burn at least 1,500 kcal in men or 1,000 in women are classified as “heavy” and require certain conditions under Polish labor laws: Night shifts can’t be longer than eight hours, employers need to provide at least one free meal, and workers must have at least 11 hours of rest time between shifts. Amazon claimed, based on its own measurements, that none of its jobs were heavy.

By the time of the inspectorate’s June 2018 examination, Amazon’s Poznan and Wrocław warehouses had already undergone at least one energy measurement each, on court orders tied to wrongful termination complaints. Conducted by Envilab, a private research laboratory, the tests determined that 18 of the 20 jobs measured in Wrocław on April 27, 2015, and nine of the 36 jobs measured in Poznan on April 12, 2018, were classified as heavy. A woman in the rebin department in Poznan expended 1,068 kcals, a man in the Wrocław stow department 1,986, and associates on the sort team in both warehouses more than 1,600. By law, the findings could be used as evidence in individual court cases but not for any wider enforcement against the company’s practices.

The inspectorate’s test found even higher levels. Of the 11 jobs assessed, seven were classified as heavy, which the agency said “exceeded permissible standards” for a 10-hour night shift. A rebin worker clocked 2,087 kcals, a packer 3,056.

Danuta Rutkowska, a spokesperson for the National Labor Inspectorate, told BuzzFeed News that “representatives of Amazon show willingness to cooperate,” but that the agency has no evidence that the company has addressed the energy expenditure issue. “This problem remains in the sphere of further interest of PIP,” Rutkowska said.

Amazon presented a different view of the inspectorate’s findings. “We disagree with the assessment by PIP,” spokesperson Eichenseher said. “As of today, there are no workplaces where the energy expenditure has been exceeded.”

When it was time to terminate workers, the HR officer at the Szczecin warehouse would break the news to each of them in a small, barren room on the ground floor. The process played out the same at Amazon warehouses across central Europe. At the Bratislava warehouse in Slovakia, workers call the small windowless room on the ground floor “samotka,” the Slovak word for a solitary confinement prison cell.

The HR rep would slide a sheet of paper across the table and tell the employee that it was probably best if they signed it. The document stated that the parting was mutual — a voluntary resignation, not a firing, and therefore not subject to a severance payment, notice period, or legal challenge.

“We were pushing people to sign the mutual agreement,” he said.

By signing, the employee would remain in good standing with Amazon and could apply for a job again after three months; their work certificate, a résumélike report card that follows workers in most blue-collar industries in central Europe, would show that they left on their own accord and hadn’t been dismissed for performance or disciplinary reasons. Many cried in the room, he said. One man threatened to kill him. “Did I feel guilty? Yes. There were many cases that I felt guilty,” the HR rep said. “The job killed a lot of humanity in me.”

The HR officer said he had no say in who got fired. Terminations and contract renewals are dictated by an algorithm that measures only productivity rates and absences. Near the end of each month, he and other managers consulted a spreadsheet listing names and statistics. Those highlighted in green were safe; those in red would lose their jobs.

“We had older people, 60 years old or more, who hit good rates and were trying their best and wanted to work, but it was just physically impossible for them to make the same numbers as younger people.”

Over his first year in Szczecin, the HR officer estimates that he terminated 350 workers. He fired workers who used more than six days of sick leave in three months or three in one month. He fired anyone who accrued three unexcused absences over any stretch. He fired workers for missing their quotas six times in a year or four weeks in a row, even if they were consistently reaching 90% to 99% of the mark.

“We had older people, 60 years old or more, who hit good rates and were trying their best and wanted to work, but it was just physically impossible for them to make the same numbers as younger people,” said the former HR rep, who requested anonymity to preserve his professional relationship with the company. “I was never proud of this.”

He said that he had asked workers to read the documents but didn’t explicitly tell them what legal rights they were signing away. Union stewards in Poland, Slovakia, and Czechia described receiving phone calls from freshly fired workers hoping to reverse their dismissal or collect a severance payment, only to find out there was nothing they could do. “People mostly don’t know their rights, and Amazon exploits that,” said Ivo Mayer, chair of the ZO OSPO union, which represents around 100 Amazon workers in Czechia.

In response to questions for this story, Amazon defended its termination policies. “We would never end someone’s employment without a clear and valid reason,” spokesperson Eichenseher said.

At least three workers in Poland who didn’t sign mutual agreements have sued Amazon for wrongful termination and won. In the case of Joanna Piotrowska, a Poznan associate who was fired in 2016 after her fourth unexcused absence in 10 months, a judge found that Amazon’s decision “does not constitute a valid reason for termination of the employment contract” because the company couldn’t prove that her absences had created additional costs to its business, according to the court ruling. Amazon was ordered to pay her $1,241 and give her her job back. In the case of Agnieszka Kukułka, a Poznan worker who was fired in 2017 after a manager caught her passing out union pamphlets, a judge ruled that the termination be reversed because Amazon had falsely claimed that her actions had created a safety hazard. After Maciej Gorajski, a packer in Poznan, was fired in 2016 for failing to hit productivity quotas, a judge ruled that Amazon’s practice of terminating employees for not hitting ever-increasing standards determined by the performance of other people “should be considered unlawful” because it is designed to ensure the slowest workers are regularly fired based on constantly changing expectations.

“It is already assumed,” Judge Michał Włodarczak wrote, “that not all employees will reach the ceiling calculated using such a method and serve to eliminate the least efficient people. With such a structure, it is not possible for all employees to achieve a minimum that is not known to the employee.” The policy, Włodarczak stated, was “an example” of an employer who cared “only for profit.”

On his fourth shift at Amazon’s warehouse in Szczecin, Poland, Stanisław Jankowski was working slower than usual. He was 69 years old and he was falling behind. Jankowski had been hired just eight days earlier, according to Eichenseher, the Amazon spokesperson.

Two Amazon managers who reviewed security footage from that night in February 2018 said that Jankowski appeared increasingly lethargic throughout the night shift, and that his supervisor approached him at least three times to encourage him to work faster.

The Szczecin warehouse stood as Amazon’s most technologically advanced warehouse in Europe when it opened in 2017, the biggest one on the continent to be fitted with a robotics unit that sped up the shipping process, increased storage capacity by 50%, and eliminated the most notorious task in the company’s logistics operation — instead of workers walking 10 to 15 miles a day to pick items from shelves, the 3,000 robots would bring the shelves to them. In its announcements unveiling the new warehouse, the company presented it as a glimpse into a future where production goals and working conditions were aligned, but workers in Szczecin soon found that wasn’t the case.

Jankowski worked as a picker, spending his shifts in what employees call “the cage” because of the steel fencing that isolates workers in a station about the size of a motel bathroom. With a computer monitor in front of him and yellow shelves rolling up to the cage, he reached up or crouched down for an item, recorded its barcode with a handheld scanner, then turned and placed it in one of the black bins on a rolling belt beneath the computer, a cycle of movements he repeated hundreds of times through his 10.5-hour shift, only interrupted by two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch. “It’s just so tiring, extremely strenuous,” said a picker in Szczecin who requested anonymity because they feared losing their job.

After his shift ended at 4 a.m., Jankowski marched to the locker room alongside dozens of other associates, one face among many. As those around him stripped off their work vests, grabbed their phones from their lockers, and made their way out toward the buses in the parking lot, Jankowski sat on the wooden bench and leaned forward with his face in his hands, the two managers who viewed the footage told BuzzFeed News. Within minutes, the room had emptied except for him. Suddenly, he collapsed to his side and tumbled to the ground.

A loss prevention staffer found him lying on the ground of the locker room at around 4:30 a.m. Paramedics took him to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. After the medical examiner ruled that the death was due to heart failure, the local prosecutor’s office closed the case, concluding that the death was accidental, clearing Amazon of criminal liability.

In the years since, at least two other Amazon workers in Poland, both in Poznan, have died while on the clock. In both cases, prosecutors also ruled the deaths accidental.

On the day of Jankowski’s death, managers informed workers of the incident, and the company provided grief counselors. There would be no memorial at the facility. The work continued.

A few days later, his wife and eldest daughter arrived at the warehouse to pick up his belongings from his locker. A senior manager and the HR chief greeted them in the lobby, expressing their condolences. They were met with anger, according to a witness to the encounter.

“You killed our father!” Jankowski’s daughter said to the Amazon officials, who responded with stunned silence.

The women tearfully entered the locker room, gathered his cellphone and keys, and then made their way back to their car for the long drive home.

One afternoon more than a year later, dozens of workers crowded under an awning in front of the Szczecin warehouse, smoking cigarettes before their shift. Few had been on the job long enough to remember the day Jankowski died. None knew his last name, which town he was from, or even what he looked like, but as one worker put it, “Everybody knows what happened to him.”

In interviews with BuzzFeed News, neither the HR rep in Szczecin who hired Jankowski nor the senior manager who oversaw his department could recall any interactions with him. “These people become anonymous,” the HR rep said. “They’re just numbers.” ●

Marcin Krasnowolski, Lukáš Onderčanin, Nina Sobotovičová, and Jakub Palata contributed reporting to this story.

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