Amazon extends closure of French warehouses as Covid-19 worker safety fight continues

Amazon is extending the closure of its French warehouses until April 25 inclusive, the online retail giant said in a written statement on Tuesday, as it argued its case to keep making deliveries in France.

The Amazon site in Lauwin-Planque in the Nord department of France is pictured on April 16, 2020.
The Amazon site in Lauwin-Planque in the Nord department of France is pictured on April 16, 2020. DENIS CHARLET AFP

Amazon made its case on Tuesday in a French court of appeal to keep deliveries on track in the country, rejecting unions' allegations that it was not doing its best to protect employees from Covid-19.

The world's largest online retailer is facing mounting scrutiny as it juggles a surge in online orders during government lockdowns to curb the pandemic and employees' safety, and France has become a major battleground.

Amazon closed six French warehouses employing about 10,000 people on April 16, following a lower court's ruling that sided with unions last week, ordering Amazon to focus only on delivering essential items like food while it revised health protocols.

Amazon's lawyers said on Tuesday that excessive restrictions on the types of goods it can deliver would penalise clients stuck in confinement and were difficult to enforce.

"We all need IT, telephone equipment, products for our young children ... we need products to be able to continue our physical activities," Francois Farmine, one the U.S. company's attorneys, told the court in the former royal city of Versailles.

Judges said they would deliver a verdict on April 24.

Union complaint

France is the only country where Amazon has shut all of its so-called fulfillment centres after unions complained that they were still too crowded and filed a legal challenge.

A growing number of unions have joined the backlash, including France's biggest, CFDT, which is seen as more moderate than the leftist SUD, which instigated the litigation.

Amazon's lawyers said that the Seattle-based group, controlled by billionaire Jeff Bezos, did its best to provide employees with health precautions, including sanitary gels and face masks.

In the hearing that took place in a room commonly used by criminal trial courts, Farmine said the unions' goal was to shut activity altogether, which in turn would penalise small businesses that use the platforms to sell their goods.

"The aim is ... to block this company," he said. "It's extremely dangerous, because if the manager of this company can't operate his activities, extremely serious consequences can follow," he added, hinting at a possible divestment from France.

The unions' leading lawyer, Judith Krivine, said that staff representatives had been open to talks with management to find a way to keep delivering certain goods while making sure social distancing was guaranteed to prevent coronavirus contagion.

"Since the beginning of the pandemic, Amazon's results are almost comparable to what they do at Christmas and we're being told that the situation they've been put in is unfair, untenable, unbearable," she said. "Let's keep it decent, please."

But not all of Amazon's workers support the unions' lawsuit, with about 15,000 signing a petition urging the reopening of distribution centres.

"The unions didn't ask us what we thought," said Priscilla Soares, one of two employees at Amazon's site in Lauwin-Planque, near Douai in northern France, who started the petition.

"At first, Amazon wasn't prepared for this" but quickly implemented safety measures, she said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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