Amazon will temporarily shut down in France after a court there ruled it had to stop delivering all products outside of food, medicine, and hygienic categories because of poor safety conditions at its warehouses during the coronavirus pandemic, the New York Times reported on Wednesday.
French labor officials identified issues at Amazon sites earlier this month including a lack of hand sanitizer and masks, as well as conditions that fell short of convincing them the company had taken adequate steps to ensure social distancing. The ruling in question was handed down after unions filed a complaint against Amazon accusing it of endangering workers’ lives.
The court order required that the firm halt all shipments not in accordance with the restrictions by Wednesday or face a nearly $1.1 million fine for each day it is not in compliance and for every time it gets caught. According to the Times, Amazon said in a statement that it had made a “huge investment... to ensure and strengthen safety measures for our employees” during the pandemic and that it was “perplexed” by supposedly vague wording in the ruling, so it instead opted to shut down the facilities rather than risk racking up fines. Unions have said that Amazon is to blame for continuing to operate in a business as usual fashion during the pandemic.
The shutdown will last five days, during which time some 10,000 furloughed Amazon employees that work in the six affected distribution centers will continue to collect pay. According to CNN, Amazon will also be required to conduct a review of “occupational risks inherent in the Covid-19 epidemic” in its logistics chain.
“The government is specifically paying attention to our citizens working during the current health emergency, and whether their employers put in place all sanitary measures—because it is their responsibility,” French government spokesperson Sibeth Ndiaye told Bloomberg.
It wasn’t until early March when Amazon, under pressure from lawmakers, finally began to roll out temperature checks and use of surgical masks at all of its U.S. and European warehouses. As of Tuesday, workers at over 70 U.S. sites have tested positive for the virus.
Amazon workers in some locations went on strike in the U.S., and leaked documents reportedly showed that the company developed a plan to launch a smear campaign against an organizer, Chris Smalls, who it rather unconvincingly insisted was fired for violating social distancing guidelines. Amazon also fired tech workers Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa last week after they publicly criticized its climate and labor policies, while another worker laid off in Minnesota, Basir Mohamed, believes it was retaliation for attempting to organize.
According to the Times, Laurent Degousée of French labor union SUD-Commerce, a main party in the complaint, said that about a quarter of the 10,000 employees were in dire need of work and concerned the ruling could lead to job cuts. But another 20 percent backed restrictions on Amazon’s business until it improves conditions, he said, and many workers had reported their jobs still required close proximity to colleagues. Degousée said other workers had to wait in long lines outside warehouses due to malfunctioning thermometers.
“We shouldn’t be risking the lives of workers for nonessential items that could wait a few weeks,” Degousée told the times. “We don’t understand consumers who say, ‘If I can’t buy something, I’m unhappy.’ They need to also understand the situation of workers in the warehouses... [Amazon] need to work on preventive measures, but their plans so far are mainly reactive.”
Julien Vincent, a representative for French labor union CFDT, added in a statement to Bloomberg that the organization views the ruling as “good news” that “will give us time to negotiate more seriously and upgrade health safety measures.”
Amazon plans on appealing the ruling, according to the Times.
Clarification: The court’s ruling imposed a fine of €1 million per day and per discovered infraction.