Amazon Reaches Deal With French Unions in Coronavirus Safety Dispute


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.

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 S.M.E.s who rely on Amazon to grow their business,” Amazon said in a statement.

The company said in an additional statement on Saturday that it was “reopening our business after going through a formal clarification and information process with works councils about the extensive safety measures already in place at our fulfillment centers to keep our employees safe. The fundamentals of these measures are the same as before.”

The company said it had invested millions of euros and put in place 150 new coronavirus safety measures at the work sites.

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.

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, as part of its plan to gradually ramp up activities at the warehouses over the next three weeks after the five-week shutdown.

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.”

Amazon managers will continue to 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 did not feel safe, Mr. Bérot said. Amazon 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 will 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.

The case has been a test of Amazon’s ability to sidestep the demands of workers who are fulfilling a jump in orders during the pandemic. Labor representatives in Italy and Spain have also pressed the online giant to improve safety measures, and Amazon has faced scrutiny in the United States, too, over the effectiveness of coronavirus safety protocols.

Amazon has defended its response to the outbreak, saying it had put more than 150 changes in place at its warehouses. It expects to have more than $4 billion in coronavirus-related expenses in the current quarter.