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Amazon temporarily closed all six of its distribution warehouses in France on Thursday, after a court ruled it had failed to adequately protect staff from coronavirus, and ordered it to restrict its operations to essential goods only.
The warehouses will be shuttered for at least five days from Thursday to allow the company to “take all the necessary measures to guarantee the health and safety of staff,” the online retail giant said in a statement sent to unions. Its 10,000 full- and part-time staff would continue to be paid during the closure using a government support scheme, according to the document.
The closures followed a French court ruling Tuesday in a case brought against Amazon by a group of labor unions. The ruling in the Nanterre Court of Justice found Amazon had “failed to recognize its obligations regarding the security and health of its workers,” and ordered the company to stop selling non-essential goods for a month while it improved worker safety.
The company would face a potential fine of 1 million euros (nearly $1.1 million) per day if it failed to comply.
The company said it was “puzzled” by the ruling, given it had taken measures to improve conditions, and would appeal. Rather than restrict its deliveries to essential goods only, Amazon said it would temporarily shutter its warehouses due to the “inherent complexity” of its operations and the risk of steep potential fines.
In a statement, it criticized labor unions for having brought the court case in the face of what it claimed was “concrete evidence” that it had improved worker safety.
“The union action that led to the decision will likely have consequences for many people in the country, including our thousands of employees, customers who rely on us now more than ever, and the small local businesses that use Amazon to grow,” the company said.
But unions said that despite the company's efforts, some workers were still required to work too close to each other, and should not have their health put in jeopardy in order to deliver non-essential goods. “We shouldn’t be risking the lives of workers for nonessential items that could wait a few weeks,” Laurent Degousée, a representative of the SUD-Commerce union, told The New York Times.
The ruling is the latest challenge to health and safety practices at Amazon, which has seen its stock hit record highs amid surging demand during the coronavirus crisis, at the same time as concerns mount about the safety of its workers. There have been confirmed coronavirus cases in more than 50 Amazon facilities in the U.S., and Amazon staff have gone on strike over their fears of being exposed to the virus. In France, where hundreds of workers staged a walk-out last month, unions said one worker infected with the virus was in intensive care.
On Thursday, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — whose personal fortune is estimated to have swollen to $138 billion in recent weeks, as customers spend an estimated $11,000 per second on the site — announced in an annual letter to shareholders that the company was developing its own testing capabilities as part of a plan to regularly test all staff for coronavirus.
Cover: Staff and employees working in the logistic warehouse of Amazon in Velizy-Villacoublay. A court in Nanterre, outside of Paris, on September 23, 2019. Photo by Raphael Lafargue/ABACARESS.COM(Sipa via AP Images)