France is the one place where Amazon workers are winning

May 13, 2020, 10:00 AM UTC

If you want to take on a trillion-dollar company in the midst of rising unemployment and a deep economic slump, it helps to live in worker-friendly France. 

That’s clear from Amazon’s French troubles this past month as two judges have ruled in favor of nearly 10,000 workers, telling the company that it failed to properly protect them from the coronavirus—echoing accusations from Amazon workers in the U.S. that the COVID-19 crisis has left them vulnerable to a deadly disease.

The battle in France has ground Amazon’s online ordering business in the world’s sixth biggest economy to a halt for four weeks—at the very time when its sales have rocketed across the locked-down, COVID-19 planet. Amazon stock is up nearly 30% this year.

Now, as Amazon tries to reopen its six fulfillment centers in France, perhaps as soon as this week, the labor unions are saying: not so fast.

“We have a really precise security plan to propose to Amazon, and if Amazon does not agree it could be very uneasy for them to open,” says Stéphane Enjalran, national secretary for the Solidaire Union, which sued Amazon France last month claiming that its members were at risk of being infected with COVID-19 because of risky conditions inside its fulfillment centers.

“We can go to court and denounce them,” Enjalran says.

Enjalran says “dozens” of Amazon workers have fallen ill with COVID-19 since the virus hit France, with one still in serious condition in a hospital south of Paris.

Almost as soon as President Emmanuel Macron declared a severe nationwide lockdown on March 17, Amazon workers complained of being unable to social distance in warehouses and about the lack of hand sanitizer and facial masks. Both items were in dire short supply across France until recently, and the government strictly restricted their sale. Back in March, Macron had instructed online retailers to remain open since almost all stores were shut until France’s lockdown ended on Monday.

Amazon insists that from the start it implemented COVID-19 safety measures that went far beyond the government’s guidelines. Those included social distancing of six feet, double the official one-meter rule, and issuing workers masks before most other companies. They also checked workers’ temperatures in warehouses and intensified cleaning procedures in the warehouses. 

“We have put extreme measures in place to keep our people safe,” Julie Valette, Amazon spokesperson in Paris, says. Like all companies everywhere, she says, when COVID-19 hit, “there was no playbook.”

With many in the country of 67 million ordering everything from phone chargers to books to shampoo online, the company was going gangbusters, and the pace inside the warehouses hugely increased, according to Enjalran. Even Amazon’s stepped-up safety measures left workers facing big risks of infection, he says. “Each warehouse day after day was saying there was another colleague sick with COVID.”

Perhaps sensing their crucial role at a historic moment, Amazon workers sued for safer working conditions, and on April 14, a French judge ruled in their favor, ordering the company to deliver only essential items or risk being fined €1 million (about $1.87 million) a day.

Rather than having to figure out the necessity of each item ordered, Amazon instead halted its deliveries, and they remain at a standstill today. “It was absolutely not operational,” says Valette. “What was an essential product? Is a hairbrush essential? Is a condom essential?”

Amazon appealed the judge’s decision in late April and lost again, although this time, the judge cut the penalties to €100,000 (about $108,700) per violation and listed the items Amazon was permitted to ship. Even so, the company estimated that even tiny errors could cost it about €1 billion a week. Amazon last year became France’s biggest online retailer.

Enjalran concedes that in some ways, Amazon is a good employer. It is paying its French workers 100% of their salaries, despite the fact that they are idling at home.

Yet he was shocked to discover last week that Amazon had applied to the French government to cover its payroll costs, the country’s equivalent of the U.S.’s Payroll Protection Program. 

Facing a 6% drop in GDP this year, French officials declined, saying that the provisions did not cover a situation like Amazon’s labor woes. The government also predicted the likely outrage that a loan to Amazon could ignite among the French—anger that Enjalran neatly summed up. “It was unbelievable,” he says of Amazon’s request for government help. “As I always say, Amazon does not know the meaning of the word shame.”

Seemingly out of options, the company appealed to the French Supreme Court last week to annul the ruling against it, arguing that it has instituted far-reaching safety measures.

It is unclear whether Amazon might finally prevail, and it could take weeks before the Supreme Court rules.

But Enjalran says workers have already won their case in one respect: their demand that union reps participate in determining Amazon’s COVID-19 strategy. That is now happening, according to Amazon. “We have started to consult with [labor] works councils and are calling for their progressive and positive input through this process,” Valette says.

For Amazon HQ, back in Seattle, its tussle with French workers has far wider consequences than reopening its six warehouses in the country. The outcome could inspire similar actions elsewhere among hundreds of thousands of workers—including in the U.S. The firing of American union activists during the pandemic has been widely publicized in France, as a mirror of what French workers have demanded—albeit in a country with far stronger labor protections. Amazon Vice President Tim Bray quit earlier this month, saying that the company had been “chickenshit” for firing the activists.

Enjalran says he and other union activists had closely followed Bray’s action.

“What we are doing was not only for Amazon and not only for French workers,” he explains. “We are connected to workers in the U.S. We are giving advice to Italian, German, British workers at Amazon.”

All the more reason for Amazon to fight to resolve its battle in France.