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Amazon reaches deal with French unions in coronavirus safety dispute

US online retailing giant Amazon is seeking to resume operations from May 19 at its warehouses in France that were temporarily closed in a labour dispute over working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic, the group announced on Friday.
US online retailing giant Amazon is seeking to resume operations from May 19 at its warehouses in France that were temporarily closed in a labour dispute over working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic, the group announced on Friday.Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images

PARIS — Amazon has reached an agreement with French unions to reopen its warehouses in France after a lengthy battle over safety measures to protect workers against the coronavirus, capping the most prominent labor showdown the retailer has faced during the pandemic.

The company said late Friday that it was finalizing an accord with French unions and employee representatives that would pave the way for a progressive reopening of its six fulfillment centers in the country as of May 19.

Amazon closed the warehouses in mid-April and put 10,000 employees on paid furlough after unions successfully sued, accusing the online giant of not taking adequate steps to protect workers from the risk of the coronavirus and of trying to sidestep the unions as they sought improved conditions.

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Two French courts sided with the labor organizations, ordering Amazon to stop delivering “nonessential” items as part of measures to protect worker health and threatening millions of euros in fines if it did not comply. Amazon shuttered the warehouses to avoid risking those penalties.

The reopening “is a positive step forward for French customers, for our French employees and for the many French SMEs who rely on Amazon to grow their business,” Amazon said in a statement, referring to small and mid-sized enterprises.

French unions hailed the decision as a victory for workers, and said the resumption of activity would be gradual and voluntary, with half the workers returning between May 19 and 25 and the rest by June 2. In a statement, the Confédération Générale du Travail, Sud-Solidaires, and the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail labor unions said the accord would allow for a return to work “in security.”

Amazon will also drop its plan to appeal the case in France’s Supreme Court. The company has maintained since the beginning of the dispute that it had “concrete evidence” that it had taken adequate steps to ensure worker safety, saying it had provided temperature checks, sanitizing gels and masks, and had enforced social distancing.

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The deal “follows five weeks of discussions in which we have repeatedly provided clarification and information about the extensive safety measures already implemented at our fulfillment centers to keep our employees safe,” the company said in its statement. Amazon said it would provide employee training on the safety measures starting on Monday.

Jean-François Bérot, a member of the Sud-Solidaires union, which brought the case against Amazon last month, said the accord represented a “true compromise.”

Under the deal, he said, Amazon managers would meet with a workers’ committee and unions once a week to evaluate safety conditions. Amazon agreed “not to make employees feel pressured” about working if they do not feel safe, he said. Shifts would be reduced by 15 minutes without pay being docked to allow for easier social distancing at shift changes. And an independent expert would be brought in to review virus protocols.

A two-euro hourly wage increase that Amazon granted European employees in March, when the pandemic set in, will be maintained for French warehouse employees until May 31, the unions said in their statement. As a result of Amazon’s concessions, the unions are dropping their demand that the company deliver only essential items.