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A TALE OF TWO COUNTRIES

Why Amazon warehouses are shut down in France, and why it won’t happen in the US

A man walks at the entrance of Amazon, in Douai, northern France
AP Photo/Michel Spingler
Shut down.
  • Marc Bain
By Marc Bain

Fashion reporter

Amazon has shut down all six of its distribution centers in France following an April 14 ruling in a French court that Amazon hadn’t done enough to protect workers in its warehouses from Covid-19. The ruling limits Amazon to delivering only food, medical items, and hygiene products until it solves the problem.

In a statement, Amazon said operations at its fulfillment centers are “complex and varied,” and given the chance of incurring the fine of €1 million ($1.1 million) per incident imposed by the court, “the risk of accidentally shipping non-essential items was too high.”

The situation is a blow to Amazon, which employs about 10,000 workers in France. The company has been ramping up safety measures as it contends with protests by workers in France and elsewhere who say they don’t have enough protective equipment and that social distancing isn’t possible in the crowded warehouses. In North America, where Amazon says it has more than 75 fulfillment centers and more than 125,000 employees, workers have staged walkouts.

But despite similar unrest among workers in the US, where Amazon does most of its sales (Quartz member exclusive), a repeat of the situation in France is unlikely.

“We have a situation where the laws are fundamentally different,” said David Madland, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute. “You can imagine similar anger and similar frustration in both countries, and similar desire for public safety in both countries, but the ultimate results are likely to be very different.”

French unions brought the action against Amazon, and they tend to be much stronger than their US counterparts. Under French law, unions represent most employees in a sector, whether they’re dues paying members or not, ensuring companies generally consult union representatives on issues such as workplace safety.

If a union in the US brought a complaint against Amazon, it might elicit changes at any workplaces covered under its specific bargaining unit, but the changes wouldn’t apply more broadly, Madland said. He added that the Trump administration has also done little to enforce existing workplace protections during the coronavirus pandemic.

In its ruling, the French court said Amazon had not consulted with unions on how it would keep workers safe from the coronavirus, according to the New York Times. In its statement, Amazon hit back at the unions, saying the union action that led to the court decision “will likely have consequences for many people in the country,” including small businesses that sell on Amazon and French shoppers buying products through it.

Amazon also said it was “perplexed by the court’s decision, which was made in spite of the overwhelming evidence we provided about the safety measures we have implemented.” The company has launched an appeal.

For now, Amazon has told employees at its French fulfillment centers to stay home this week. Workers will receive their base salaries in full while it evaluates the warehouses with union representatives, it said. Amazon’s top executive in France, Frederic Duval, told Reuters today the company isn’t sure when its French warehouses might reopen.

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