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Amazon's David vs Goliath moment: Second French court orders e-commerce giant to protect workers; backs employees in row over virus measures

FP Staff

Amazon-the US e-commerce giant has got a rapping from a French court. The court in its ruling said Amazon did not 'do enough' to protect its workers.

Unions in France and beyond welcomed Friday's ruling by the appeals court in Versailles as a comeuppance for the online behemoth, and expressed hope that negotiations with Amazon management on new safety measures can start next week, said a report in The Associated Press (AP). The standoff has drawn global attention, as worldwide demand for Amazon's services soars because confined consumers can no longer shop in stores.

Amazon will keep its six warehouses in France closed until after a stand-off with unions over sanitary conditions amid the coronavirus outbreak, it said on Sunday, a Reuters report said.

A French court on Friday rejected Amazon's appeal against a ruling that restricts what it can deliver during the coronavirus crisis, handing a victory to unions that had criticised the US e-commerce giant's safety measures.

The courts found Amazon didn't do enough to enforce social distancing, to ensure that turnstiles and locker rooms were virus-free, or to increase cleaning of its warehouses.

Amazon must limit deliveries in France to IT products, health items, food and pet food, the Court of Appeal said, upholding a previous order for the firm to curtail shipments while it improves its health protocols.

Amazon temporarily shut all its French distribution centres last week, after a lower court ordered it to stop selling non-essential goods while it works out new safety measures with staff.

Amazon argued that it was too complicated to separate out its activities, and appealed.

The appeals court upheld the overall requirement for Amazon to work out new safety measures. But it also expanded the products Amazon is allowed to sell, adding electronics, office and pet supplies.

The original ruling only permitted sales of food and medical and cleaning supplies.

The appeals court also reduced the potential fines Amazon faces for future violations, from 1 million euros per infraction to 100,000 euros.

Amazon's six warehouses in France, where goods are packed up and dispatched and which staff had complained were too crowded, have been shut since 16 April, after the initial court ruling last week curtailing the scope of deliveries.

The US group had argued that defining essential goods such as health products was too complex and that it did not want to risk fines.

Amazon said in a statement Friday that it will keep its distribution centers closed at least through 28 April with staff receiving full pay, and that it was assessing how to operate following the court's decision.

"Our distribution centres in France and around the world are safe," it said in a statement. It added that the court decision "reinforces our idea that the main issue is not so much security, as the will of certain trade union organisations to take advantage of a complex consultation process with social and economic committees," Reuters said.

The Versailles court said that for every delivery Amazon shipped which did not meet its strict criteria on basic goods, the company would face a 100,000-euro ($108,000) penalty.

The company insisted that its facilities are safe, and said it had involved worker representatives in discussions about security measures. Amazon has said its safety measures were adequate, and that it had made hand gel and face masks available to workers.

"We don't think this decision is in the best interest of the French, of our partners and thousands of small French businesses that count on Amazon to develop their activities," it said, according to a report by The Associated Press (AP).

Unions hail verdict

The Unions called the verdict as a "David against Goliath" moment, at a time when Amazon is seeing a surge in demand but also facing labour unrest on both sides of the Atlantic over its handling of deliveries during the pandemic.

"Just because this is a giant US company, it doesn't mean it should not have to make efforts during this crisis. It is not above the law," said Laurent Degousee of France's Sud union to Reuters.

The ruling "is also a warning to other companies, whether they are still operational or not, or looking to restart their activities," he said.

Some workers say the company placed profits over staff safety as virus outbreaks erupted around France.

Unions say one worker infected with the virus is in intensive care.

The court rulings "will require (Amazon) to work differently, which is not such a bad thing," said Jean-Francois Berot, a member of the SUD-Solidaires union who packages and picks up goods in an Amazon warehouse in Saran south of Paris.

"The judge reminded them that there are laws, and they have to adhere to them," he said. He hopes negotiations with unions can start as soon as Monday. Labor unions elsewhere are also watching.

"The court's decision ... means that it's time for Amazon to start behaving like a responsible employer and establish a productive relationship with labor unions, in France and elsewhere," said Christy Hoffman, general secretary of UNI Global Union, according to AP.

Unions said they were negotiating with Amazon to try to find a compromise, including health protocols they are satisfied with, so that operations can resume - albeit with fewer staff deployed at once.

Small businesses hit

The decision is a blow for thousands of small businesses that sell through Amazon, and comes as firms across Europe are trying to figure out how to let staff safely return to offices and factories once coronavirus restrictions are eased.

The spat has accentuated losses for some French businesses that were still managing to sell and ship through Amazon.

"It's been horrendous," said Yannick Jan, to Reuters. His stationery company on the outskirts of Paris has been trying to handle 600 orders a day from its own premises, rather than the usual 80, since the Amazon warehouses shut.

Jan's monthly sales were already on the wane due to the pandemic. Skyrocketing shipment costs were now eating into margins, he said.

Some 10,000 third-party French vendors sell though Amazon's site and many use its logistics too.

Amazon has frozen some storage fees for French vendors.

Sylvain Flipot, who sells goods including riding saddles and dressing-up costumes across Europe through Amazon, said much of his stock had become stranded in Amazon's sites.

His business, Ponera, had offset some of the hit from the coronavirus crisis with sales of hygiene products like soaps. But his French revenues have fallen 80% since the warehouses shut, and exports were tricky.

"We're sending some goods to an Amazon warehouse in Germany," Flipot said to Reuters. "But it's costing four times as much, and there are long delays."

Amazon dominates the online delivery market in France, with 431 million euros in sales in 2018 and more than 10,000 employees.

--With inputs from agencies

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