Editors’ note: Popula editor Aaron Bady found this author on Reddit, and asked him if we might publish an expanded and edited version of his story. Warm thanks to Juan Caballero for fact checking and other invaluable help.
My family moved to Serbia from Montenegro in 2006, when I was just beginning primary school. My family hadn’t supported independence, so after it came, we felt unwelcome in Montenegro. But when we arrived in Serbia, too, our nationality counted against us: Serbs seemed to dislike people from the country they had just separated from. After high school I trained as a CNC engineer, operating computer-driven machines that make precision components. But when I finished my education, it was clear I wouldn’t be able to find a job in Serbia. The country brags that it’s made a full recovery from the civil war, but the average salary is around 422 Euros a month, and despite my four years of study, I was losing hope of finding work.
My mother moved to the Netherlands when I was in 7th grade. I could never grasp why she had “abandoned” me, leaving me in the care of her parents; we had been so close when I was a kid, and did everything together. So it was a really heartwarming experience when she finally called me, on my 19th birthday, and explained that she had been working like crazy to bring us together, and had finally found a way: if you could learn Hungarian, and prove that an ancestor had lived in “Greater Hungary,” you could acquire a Hungarian passport. Since a great-great-great-grandmother of ours had lived in Vojvodina, Serbia, during the time of Austria-Hungary, my mother was able to learn the language and get a passport to enter the EU.
It’s difficult to express how valuable an EU passport is if you are from the countries immediately outside it. It means access to jobs, affordable medicine and education, and a decent standard of living. Germany was the most lenient country for “family merging,” and the only country that would accept me along with my mother. And since she had been near the Netherlands border with Germany, it would be easier for her to stay in contact with friends.
At first, I wasn’t interested in going; I’d lived with my grandparents for most of my life, and had grown very attached to them. But they encouraged me to go with my mother, and I started thinking it wasn’t such a bad idea. Their health isn’t good and they barely scrape by, even with my mother’s help; I wanted to help, as well. I couldn’t speak German of course, but my mother assured me my high school English would be enough, that most people in Germany speak English. I was still worried; before I moved, I sought out local Germans and when I told them that I was going to Berlin, most gave me negative responses, telling me that Berlin is not a good place to be. There’s lots of crime and addicts, they told me, and people hate foreigners. It’s dangerous to walk alone at night.
I was undeterred. I moved to Berlin in the summer of 2018, when I was about to turn twenty, and when I applied for an Aufenthalt card, they gave me one year of residency in Germany. I would need to find a job before that ran out, but my residency could be extended to five years if I did.
Sounds easy, right?
First I applied for jobs as a CNC technician. But though I’d always get callbacks and they’d be interested to meet me—apparently most of their current workers lack a diploma, or perform poorly—every single time I followed up, they’d tell me the same thing: We’re happy you took the time to visit us, and we’d love to have you, they’d say, but since you can’t speak German, we can’t hire you. If you learn German up to B2 level, we’d be happy to hire you.
I spent a few weeks learning German in a private class, which helped me understand the basics. But I had too long a way to go, I somehow couldn’t do it and it made me more and more depressed. As the months went by, I became desperate; this wasn’t how my mother had described Germany. No one in Berlin speaks English, or if they do, they choose not to.
Until I found Amazon, I had no luck finding a job I could do speaking English. At first, I was really happy; the staff was friendly, and it felt like I had found the job that would let me stay in Germany, and even to earn some money. When I told my German friends that I’d been hired by Amazon, their responses were negative; they told me it was a miserable place, that workers are treated like replaceable slaves. But I doubted them; how bad could it be?
To start off, I was told that I’d have an eight-hour night shift, five days a week; my boss explained the safety procedures, like not carrying a package on your own if it’s over 15 kilograms. They gave us all safety boots and told us to come back the next day (or night) at around 1 AM. Despite my poor German, I memorized the building and its location: Alt-Mariendorf, Porschestraße.
On the first day, an instructor showed me how to work as a picker, a sorter, and other jobs. It seemed easy enough, until I began to realize how much they expected you to work. Bathroom breaks were extremely limited. Water bottles were not provided. When they gave us High-Visibility vests, they were all size M; I’m much too tall for that, but they ignored my complaints and never gave me a replacement.
They seemed friendly, and tried to motivate me by telling me that I was doing great, that I’d rise up the ranks really fast. But soon I found out that this wasn’t the case. People would yell at me constantly; I was too slow as a picker, and the conveyor belts moved way too fast. We needed to get 60,000 packages picked and sorted in a day, and while I could keep up for the first few hours, the safety boots became heavy and painful.
Sometimes they’d expect you to stay for an extra hour or two, to help the day shift, and extra money sounds fair. But when I physically couldn’t walk any more, and my managers would ask me what’s wrong, I had pretend that nothing was wrong, that my feet just hurt. I didn’t want them to make me badge out; I was getting worried about getting fired. If couldn’t find a new job, I’d get deported.
I didn’t want to go. Life in Berlin is hard, but my relationship with my mother has been improving, back to normal, I think, and I’m happy about that. I had a small group of friends in Serbia but there’s only one friend that I truly miss; though I wish I could see him again, we keep in touch online. And Berlin is the capital of Germany, with a lot of things to see, like Checkpoint Charlie, or the Brandenburg gate, you can buy and try out almost anything you can imagine. Money isn’t everything.
My second week at Amazon, they started a new method for picking and sorting, assigning several people to three sections. For example, I’d work on Area B and pick up boxes with numbers from 10 to 16, and a sorter would work near me and only pick up those packages, scan the barcodes, and then sort each into its appropriate bag. But it was madness. By the time I’d scan one package, so many would have passed me by on the conveyor that I’d have to run to catch them.
Oh, and that rule about not carrying boxes alone if they’re over 15 kilograms? Not so much. I had to carry boxes up to thirty kilos sometimes, on my own.
The new method required them to bring more people to just help us; I literally couldn’t put any more boxes on the shelves, and there were so many coming that I couldn’t scan them fast enough. In the end, I collapsed from exhaustion and knee pain, so I told my manager I needed to badge out, that I physically couldn’t take it any longer, and went home and went to sleep.
When I came back, they had put an end to the new method; it wasn’t going well, and all of my coworkers were angry. They assigned me to work as a “DJ”, who sorts the packages into their respective sections so the pickers have an easier job. At this point I got sick with the flu, so much so that I had to run to the bathroom and vomit. I spent twenty minutes in the bathroom until a Syrian coworker found me. He asked me if was sick, in German, and I replied that I was; I think then he explained that I should go tell the managers and take a sick-day off. Then he left to call the Manager. I’m so glad he came; I was just balancing myself on the sink, rinsing my face with water, I was so dizzy.
When the manager came, I explained that I was feeling really sick and that I couldn’t stand anymore. After I spent my entire break in the bathroom, I was showing no signs of improving so they sent me to another manager; I told him that I had vomited and still didn’t feel good, after 30 minutes, but he just looked at me with pure aggression. I should have left before the break, he snapped; I was confused because another manager told me to stay through the break. He just looked annoyed and badged me out.
When I asked him if I could switch to the day shift, since it’s only four hours, the answer was not what I expected: “I doubt it,” he said. “Your performance is horrible and you get sick too often. No offence, but I don’t see you as a long-term Amazon employee. Go home and get your Krankmeldung from the doctor.”
I went back home, very shook up. When I woke up again, I found that my boss had sent me a message to stay home for the day, and I thanked him. He seemed like genuinely nice person, and so I went to my doctor, who gave me ten days off, I sent the Krankmeldung to my Boss, apologizing for the inconvenience. I felt bad about the entire situation.
Today I got a phone call from the company, telling me that I’ve been fired. Apparently my boss gave me the free day because he didn’t want me to get the Krankmeldung and receive payment for not working.
I think Amazon is aware of how they treat their workers. When I read the names of my coworkers, there was only one German that wasn’t a manager. Most were African—mostly Eritrean—but there were a lot of Syrians too, along with the occasional Pole, Iranian, and Turk. Then there was me, and a single German who seemed like he couldn’t take the job either. Most could speak English, and when I asked why they were working at Amazon, they told me the same thing: Aufenthalt. My best friend at work was from Chad, and he complained about back pains every day, blaming the horrible safety boots they issued to us. When they changed our work plans, I remember him telling me that slavery is still real.
Now here I am, unemployed, with three months to find a job. I don’t know what to do. I feel incompetent and a failure, and this entire experience has broken me. I’ll be deported unless I get lucky.
Popula is 100% ad-free, reader-supported journalism accountable only to you. Every dollar of your subscription goes straight to our work. Thank you for supporting Popula.