Antibacterial Wipes, Wigs, Jump Ropes, Vodka

Thanks to its ubiquitous presence across Europe, Amazon was never seriously penalized. The nearly boundless scale of the company also allowed it to ignore the mandate about excluded products; its catalogue for French shoppers offered thousands of both essential and non-essential items. In fact, according to a report from Bloomberg, Seattle may have shut the French warehouses precisely to avoid setting this expensive and complex precedent for other countries.

The fight for workplace safety at Amazon France

Photo via Flickr.

At midnight on March 15, an employee at an Amazon warehouse in France sent an email to a workplace safety expert. He was worried about returning to work because there was no plan to sanitize between shifts. “Even if Amazon has put measures in place, a lot of workers are still worried,” he wrote. “I’d like to know your opinion.” The independent official responded in the morning: “It would be wiser, in terms of public health, to cease all operations.”

All six Amazon warehouses in France, many of which were inaugurated by government ministers or the president himself, stayed open. A national ban prohibited more than a hundred people from gathering in public, but it didn’t prevent thousands of workers from packaging glue sticks and exercise bands. Employees compared the volume of work to the week before Christmas: temporary workers were recruited; everyone got a two-euro-an-hour bonus.

The first Amazon employee with coronavirus symptoms, according to the workers’ unions, fell ill the next day at a warehouse near Dijon. The company’s response was disorganized, like most of its safety protocols that week. The employee with a fever was asked to wait at the front gate for a taxi, but when the driver arrived, he refused to allow her into the car because of her face mask—still an unusual sight at that point, only a week after Macron had visited a café on the Champs-Elysées. She spent the next several hours inside the building, waiting for her superiors to determine how she could leave.

“Are we doing things perfectly?” the president of Amazon France Logistics asked on a staff call at the end of the week. “The answer is no.” It was then the third day of a national lockdown, and many companies, from Michelin to Hermès, had closed their factories. “There are places where we have to improve,” the executive admitted. Those places included: the warehouses’ turnstile entrances, where thousands of workers would clock in for the day; the narrow hallways, which didn’t allow for the mandated one-meter separation; the break rooms; the shuttles.

Workers unloaded trucks full of thumb drives from Milan, the epicenter of the pandemic, and assembled in large numbers for regular meetings. For many weeks, the only protection between the workers and the cardboard boxes were fabric work gloves that certain departments already had before the pandemic. D., an Amazon warehouse worker who did not wish to be identified, simply resolved to ignore the safety conditions. “I really made an effort to not pay attention,” he told me, “because otherwise it could affect my work, or I might lose it.”

In the first month of the lockdown, five million French households shopped on Amazon. They ordered antibacterial wipes, but also wigs, jump ropes, and vodka. “That’s what disgusted us,” said M., an employee at a fulfillment center serving Paris. “The PS4s, the sex toys.” Another worker near Avignon knew he was sick by the end of March, when he realized that he couldn’t taste his coffee anymore. He was upset, of course, he told Le Figaro, but “even more upset knowing that it was to send massage oil and video games.”

From the warehouse floor, Amazon employees started to reach out to their union representatives, attaching cell phone photos to their messages. The dispatches were mostly rushed and off-kilter, but always legible: temp workers standing shoulder-to-shoulder; a pile of overlapping jackets; a video of overcrowding at the entrance. Some workers took screenshots of the emails that announced each positive coronavirus test at their warehouse—at least 16 by mid-April, according to the union’s count. Others organized socially distanced strikes in the fulfillment center parking lots. “We feel that our lives are in danger,” Khaled Bouchajra, a representative of the CGT labor union, told a local newspaper.

Sud-Solidaires, the major union for Amazon workers, advised its members to walk off the warehouse floor. As early as March 16, they also urged workers to invoke their “right to withdrawal.” Under French labor law, the right protects employees from unsafe working conditions, while guaranteeing their salary. Bus drivers and staff at the Louvre had already exercised this right earlier in the month. But according to Amazon, the conditions in their warehouses didn’t meet the threshold of a serious and imminent danger. Any absence was therefore unjustified, and would go unpaid. In a series of emails, Amazon employees were told: “We can confirm we have taken all the actions to permit you to work in full security. There is therefore no legitimate reason for you to withdraw from your workplace.”

The Sud-Solidaires union wrote to France’s Minister of Labor on March 19, urging her to close the warehouses. The Ministry conducted workplace inspections that resulted in formal warnings for five out of the six warehouses, with infractions ranging from overcrowding to a lack of hand sanitizer for truck drivers. In Saran, a town with one of the largest Amazon fulfillment centers, the mayor appealed to the authority of the regional prefect, alerting him to the lack of “the most basic measures required to protect the workers.” The Minister of the Economy decried an “unacceptable pressure on the workers,” but the government was otherwise largely silent.

Laurent Degousée, a Sud-Solidaires representative based in Paris, thought that a lawsuit would be the best course of action. “He wouldn’t stop sending me messages, telling me it was catastrophic for the workers,” Judith Krivine, a labor law lawyer, told me. Krivine, who has a strong reputation as an advocate of workers’ rights, was interested, but she wasn’t sure the lawsuit was possible yet.

The courts were closed for the lockdown. And even if they did open, the union’s prospects were uncertain at best against one of the largest and most aggressive companies in the world, a brand that has become synonymous with poor working conditions and yet is still regularly courted by local and national governments. “The employers have enormous power, and so in terms of the court, it would require a lot of courage from the judges to rule in our favor,” Krivine said. “Then again, the size and arrogance of the company could also motivate the judges to show that economic power doesn’t exempt anyone from the law.”

On April 1, an Amazon France employee was admitted into intensive care, galvanizing the Sud-Solidaires team. “We said ‘That can’t be!’” Degousée told me. “We’re going to make some waves.” Once another lawyer at Krivine’s firm brought the French postal service to court, they knew the case was at least feasible. A court in Nanterre, a suburb of Paris with jurisdiction over Amazon’s headquarters, agreed to consider the charges soon after. Krivine collected worker testimonies and paired them with the letters from the workplace inspectors. The evidence was intended to refute the retail giant’s own claims—the various statements that informed employees that the warehouses were safe. “I studied them line by line,” Krivine said. “You say that you respect the one-meter distance. Next to it, I’d put a photo of people who were less than a meter apart.”

The scope of the argument went beyond the immediate threat of the coronavirus. Amazon has a robust history of workplace accidents, and the haphazard new practices—reversing the requirement to hold onto a ramp when taking the stairs, for example—could weaken the company’s preexisting safety norms. Krivine also considered the impact of psychological stress. “To sell nail polish to people in lockdown while they put themselves, and their families, at risk for an abominable salary,” she argued, was its own kind of psychosocial hazard, such as sexual harassment or an excessive workload. Even if it was technically legal to sell non-essential items, the blatantly frivolous work was problematic, if not altogether degrading, in the context of the lockdown.

The hearing took place on April 10, the day after a sixth Amazon worker died in the US. The judge dismissed the union’s first argument, based on the national ban on large gatherings. This policy wasn’t applicable to the workplace, the court ruled, turning instead to the question of safety.

Sud-Solidaires presented an account of the warehouses that would have been unremarkable at any other moment. In an innocuous photo gallery, made unsettling only by the time-stamps, bare-handed workers waved to bare-faced workers in the entryway, a shuttle arrived at just over half capacity, people talked to each other. They assembled in a crowd to read announcements on a single screen. At a meeting on the wide-open warehouse floor, workers in orange vests were gathered so close that they could have been holding hands.

The fulfillment centers as depicted instead by Amazon were sterile and orderly, dotted with bottles of hand sanitizer. Tape divided the floor into isolated islands; signs on the wall designated certain hallways as one-way. Although the new protocols had been implemented over the previous weeks, when the warehouses were occupied almost all day and night, the photos themselves were largely empty; the only time workers appeared in the background it seemed accidental. “This evidence only concerns the establishment of these measures, not whether the workers respect them,” the judge ruled.

In the end, the court appeared willing to reconcile the two accounts. It was possible that Amazon had intervened to protect the health of its workers, and that its efforts were simply inadequate. The stakes were too high to condone this kind of margin of error, though, and the court responded with page after page of doubts: Access to the lockers was restricted to allow for social distancing, but how was the policy enforced? The increased frequency of cleaning was praiseworthy, but where was the protocol to confirm each scheduled session? Amazon claimed that multiple workers handling the same box wasn’t a risk, and yet the company’s own materials—submitted to the court as evidence of safety training—noted that the virus can survive for up to 24 hours on cardboard.

The judge didn’t impose practical measures, like the workplace inspectors with their granular evaluations of particular hallways and turnstiles. Ultimately, the case not only addressed whether the warehouse was safe, but whether Amazon had evaluated all possible risks. The court prescribed a programmatic solution: to make the warehouse safe, consult the people who work in it.

This approach might have been influenced by the specific nature of the crisis—no one understands the risks more immediately than the people facing them every day—but it was also firmly grounded in French labor law. When a company undertakes any major change, such as collective dismissals or a modification to working hours, it’s required to inform and listen to its workers. At Amazon, like most companies, workers are represented by a works council, a small committee of elected employees. When, for example, an Amazon fulfillment center in the south of France restructured its logistics chain four years ago, the site management had to involve its local works council in the process.

In the case of the pandemic, which arguably led to the most extensive changes to the workplace since the online retailer arrived in France in 2000, Amazon never adequately consulted with its works council. The company couldn’t provide any evidence of communication with its worker representatives other than top-down directives from the headquarters. The only written evidence offered on this subject—a series of emails—confirmed that the workers “were only informed about the preventative measures after the fact” of their implementation.

The ruling, delivered on April 14, ordered Amazon to reevaluate the risks in its fulfillment centers, with input from its work councils. The daily penalty for noncompliance was set at one million euros, about how much Amazon France made every day of 2018. The warehouses could remain open as long as the company limited its catalogue to food, medicine, and hygiene products. The de facto ban on “non-essential” goods had nothing to do with the legality of the goods themselves; other online shopping platforms and well-stocked supermarkets also sold printer cartridges and headbands. The restriction was a way to limit the number of employees on the warehouse floor and thereby lower the risk of contamination.

Amazon’s response was decisive. The company immediately appealed the ruling and, according to a member of the National Assembly, informed the Elysée that it might halt further expansion in France. Confronted with a judicial system that dared to be interventionist, Seattle made its choice: its French warehouses would simply close. It was too technically complex to sort its catalogue of 250,000 items, the company argued, and the financial cost of a mistake was too high. “I don’t know if a nail clipper is essential,” said Frédéric Duval, the CEO of Amazon France.

And yet, despite the shutdown, Amazon kept delivering packages in France. As a kind of European Hydra, it could just reroute orders through warehouses in Spain, Italy, or Germany—a strategy that’s also effective at undermining strikes. The orders were then delivered by last-mile logistics subcontractors or Amazon Transport, a separate legal entity that was unaffected by the ruling. “It’s a game of cat and mouse,” Antoine Foti, a CGT union representative, told Le Monde. “The people at Amazon are very imaginative and pragmatic.”

Thanks to its ubiquitous presence across Europe, Amazon was never seriously penalized. The nearly boundless scale of the company also allowed it to ignore the mandate about excluded products; its catalogue for French shoppers offered thousands of both essential and non-essential items. In fact, according to a report from Bloomberg, Seattle may have shut the French warehouses precisely to avoid setting this expensive and complex precedent for other countries.

At the same time, Amazon tried to redirect the blame for the closures. In the news, headlines often elided the court ruling and the shutdown, implying that the government itself had closed the warehouses. Amazon played up this narrative with full-page ads in Le Monde, where it stated that “the decision from the court in Nanterre left us with no other choice but to temporarily suspend operations in our French warehouses.” An empty cardboard box appeared beneath the message, waiting to be packed.

It was easy to assume, listening to Amazon executives like Duval, that the courts had leveraged a demand for workplace safety to inflict needless harm on the French people. Amazon is “absolutely necessary for the continued life of the nation,” argued the company’s lawyer, as if the lack of two-day shipping constituted its own national emergency. “We don’t think that this decision is in the best interests of the French, of our employees, or the thousands of small French businesses that count on Amazon to grow,” the company posted to Twitter, in reference to its third-party vendors, some of whose merchandise was now locked in shuttered warehouses.

Amazon has efficiently reordered a world in which its presence is as necessary and mandatory as labor itself, and even some workers—ostensibly the beneficiaries of the warehouse closures—agreed with their CEO’s demand to reopen. On April 16, two employees independently started a petition to return to the warehouses, which gathered over 15,000 signatures from workers as well as customers. The employees, who conceded that the safety measures in the first week of lockdown were imperfect, felt that the warehouses were safer than any supermarket. “We have our personal hand sanitizer, our disinfectant wipes at each workstation,” said Mohamed Manhajay, who has worked at Amazon for the past three years. While all workers were paid their full salaries during the shutdown, as required by French law, some temporary employees weren’t protected; the closures meant that their contracts might not be renewed. In effect, the petition pitted a demand for workplace safety against a demand for work in general.

On April 24, the court of appeals upheld the original ruling, including its judgments on safety precautions. The new ruling discredited the notion that worker representation was just a technicality, as Amazon had characterized it. A relationship with its workers was in Amazon’s own interest according to the judge. “Their participation is indispensable,” she wrote, “because of their understanding of their own work and the risks it entails.”

The judge also awarded the unions a strategic advantage. The new order required Amazon to “consult,” rather than just “include,” its worker representatives. More than just a semantic nuance, the distinction carried real weight: in the context of the shutdown, it allowed the works council to suspend all operations for up to three months. In that time, the 18 employees representing the Amazon France workers would consult a third-party expert and draft an official opinion. It was essentially bargaining power; if the council’s demands were met, work could resume before the end of the three-month period.

This leverage didn’t last long. Following the appeal, Amazon dragged its feet on starting the months-long process. A few days later, on May 2nd, the government decreed that the suspension period would be shortened to twelve days. It was part of a larger announcement that had been planned before the Amazon ruling, which truncated various other worker rights in response to the pandemic. To the unions, the timing still felt like more than a coincidence. “It seemed like it was tailor-made for Amazon,” Sud-Solidaires wrote in a press release.

The workers, represented by the unions in the lawsuit—Sud-Solidaires, CGT and CFDT—eventually negotiated with Amazon all the same. The two parties came to an agreement after several days of confidential video calls, sometimes debating until midnight or one in the morning. On May 15, the unions published a joint press release titled “End of the crisis!!!”

The warehouses would only open at half capacity, and workers would return on an elective basis. Anyone who stayed at home, for whatever reason, would receive their full salary, including workers on temporary contracts. (The incentive to return was the same two-euro-an-hour bonus offered at the beginning of the pandemic.) The maximum capacity would rise gradually until it returned to 100 percent on June 3rd. In this time, there would be a third-party expert evaluation of the working conditions, as well as fifteen paid minutes at the end of shifts to avoid overcrowding.

When Tim Bray, a former vice president of Amazon Web Services, resigned in early May over the company’s treatment of whistleblowers, he cited the French lawsuit as proof that the legal system could force Amazon to treat its workers acceptably. “If we don’t like certain things Amazon is doing, we need to put legal guardrails in place to stop those things,” he wrote. “Don’t say it can’t be done, because France is doing it.”

To M., the Amazon employee on the outskirts of Paris, the legal battle was symbolic. “These companies need to know that their employees are important,” she told me. “Even if they’ve automated this warehouse, the robots don’t do everything.” The courts offered a useful template for essential labor in the pandemic—beyond the face masks and gloves, workplace safety is about collective consent.

Of course, in the age of Prime capitalism, this may not amount to much. A victory might mean the right to package pens and plastic Harry Potter dolls with a lower risk of contracting an infectious disease. The workers returning to the warehouses in France still face considerable uncertainty. To begin with, they’ll be surveilled by “safety angels,” volunteer employees who receive bonuses to enforce social distancing rules and penalize workers for infractions—a system that workers have said makes them feel like “children in kindergarten.” There are also the questions raised by the petition, about who ultimately weighs the risks and benefits of working in unsafe conditions, and who defines exactly what “safe” means. (After the lawsuit, the CFDT union addressed the workers who signed the petition, arguing that the courts proved “YOU WERE NOT SAFE.”)

It’s unlikely that the rulings will impact Amazon elsewhere, and some labor organizers worry that they might not have the same luck against French companies. In their view, the courts were more interested in inflicting a loss on the American behemoth than delivering a win for workers. Bruno Marc, a union representative at the FNAC, a large French chain, argued that the case was pure pretense. “They have it in for Amazon,” he told a business magazine. “There was a willingness to prevent them from taking too much more of the market during the lockdown.”

In the first weeks of May, while the labor unions negotiated with Amazon, the local works councils identified the remaining workplace hazards at each warehouse. In total, they counted 2,248 risks. I asked a press representative at Amazon France whether any of these interventions might be implemented in other countries: was it useful that these workers had inventoried all the necessary changes? She told me the safety protocols were already in place at every Amazon fulfillment center in the world, just as they had been in France. “The warehouses,” she insisted, “were always safe.”

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