French trade unions have won a legal action against Amazon over health & safety at work during Covid-19. Ben Wray spoke to Stéphane Enjalran, National Secretary of the Solidaires trade union, which led the court action, about the significance of the court ruling.’
This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in the EU was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Lipman-Miliband Trust
Ben Wray is a freelance journalist leading BRAVE NEW EUROPE’S Gig Economy Project. He also produces a morning newsletter called Source Direct on Scottish politics, which you can sign-up to here: https://sourcenews.scot/mailing-list/
A significant victory has been won by Amazon workers in France. The global distribution giant has shutdown six warehouses after losing a court case brought forward by French unions representing Amazon workers, who have been forced to work in close proximity to one another during the Covid-19 pandemic, putting them and others at risk of infection.
The unions won the first case in the Court of Nanterre on April 14th. Amazon appealed that decision, but were defeated again at the Court of Appeal in Versailles on April 24th. Giving her verdict, the appeal court judge made it clear that “employees…are the primary actors of their health security.”
The victory has resounded internationally. Jeff Bezos, Amazon boss – and the richest man in the world – has seen his wealth grow by $24 billion in the lockdown period alone as demand for e-commerce spikes. Bezos is getting even richer on the backs of a global workforce of approximately 780,000 who are putting their lives in danger, forced to choose between their health and their wage. The French court victory shows that Bezos is not all-powerful: workers’ rights, even at Amazon, can be fought for and defended.
The Gig Economy Project spoke to Stéphane Enjalran, National Secretary of trade union Solidaires (SUD), which has been organising Amazon workers and led the coalition of unions which defeated Amazon in the courts.
Enjalran explains the background to the court action, the ‘struggle union’ organising model of Solidaires, and the wider context of Covid-19 in France, which comes on the back of a wave of strikes and protests since 2018 that have rocked Emmanuel Macron’s presidency.
Q: When did Solidaires begin organising Amazon workers?
We started organising in Amazon no more than five years ago. It was very difficult in the beginning. Amazon has a very aggressive policy against workers trying to build unions. I think it is like this everywhere in the world. A lot of workers are on time-limited contracts, and the company is always trying to clear out ‘troublemakers’.
Q: What is the Solidaires model?
We should call it a ‘rank-and-file’ type of union. It is different from other unions in France like CGT and CFDT, which are a confederation model. We are a group of unions but we operate independently. For example, I am the National Secretary, but I can’t say to any union ‘you have to do that’. All the decisions are taken by the assembly of our unions.
Q) How did the Amazon Covid-19 dispute start?
It began in the middle of March, at the beginning of the confinement in France, which continues now. The government immediately made several rules for the confinement period. For example, it is forbidden for more than 100 people to gather in France in the same place.
In these Amazon warehouses there were sometimes 300-500 people who were working together. At the beginning, they weren’t provided with proper protective equiptment. The masks arrived, but they arrived late. That was the first problem.
Then one of the major problems became the lack of social distancing. It’s impossible for workers to maintain a proper distance, so they said: ‘What do we do? How can we do what you ask us to do before the pandemic while respecting the social distancing? It’s impossible.’
So the answer of Amazon was to hire what they call ‘safety angels’. People that are there to watch in the rooms of the warehouses that workers maintained the correct social distancing from each other. It was impossible for these people to ensure workers stayed one metre apart. They would have to be everywhere at every moment. So the workers said: ‘Your safety angels are very nice, but it’s not enough. It’s not effective.’
Amazon’s first line to the press and to the workers was: ‘We are doing everything to ensure the safety of workers’. The workers responded: “No, it’s not enough, you have to convene a special meeting to speak about distancing, to speak about a global plan, because the problem is that some things are done in one warehouse, but not in the other. They asked for a unified plan for safety. Amazon refused, and that’s where it reached crisis point.
We tried to use what in French is called the ‘right of withdrawal’. That means that “in case of serious and immediate danger”, those are the exact words, workers have the right to withdraw their labour. There are procedures to instigate this measure. And then the employee has to pay, even if the workers do not work, because of the danger. So we tried to instigate this, and Amazon said ‘no, we don’t agree, there is no immediate danger’. I was certain that as soon as possible Amazon would fire people who used the right of withdrawal, and workers were fearing this to be honest. The law is that if the employer does not agree with the right of withdrawal, it can go to court. But this can take years, so you can be completely blocked.
The Ministry of Labour, after carrying out an inspection, officially recognised that Amazon was not meeting health and safety standards. But, back in 2016, the government reduced the power of work inspectors. Now you have to go to court, so it’s not a remedy in an emergency.
That’s why our union decided to take legal action.
Q) Now the six warehouses are closed down. What does this mean in terms of Amazon workers pay?
First of all, closing down was the decision of Amazon, not of the judge. Even if our unions were asking this of the judge, the judge didn’t agree to fulfil our request to close warehouses. The judge stated that they could remain open as long as health security was assured and as long as Amazon delivered only essential products. Amazon chose to close, for one reason, because they knew that they weren’t in a good position on safety: so they wanted to avoid being fined.
So Amazon started the closures on April 16th. They chose to pay the wages of all of the workers, and still are right now. That, for us, was the first good decision they have made in this crisis. If the warehouses remain closed for a significant period; there could be a struggle on the wages issue. After the second judgement of the Appeal court, Amazon said the warehouses would be closed until May 5th. And they continue to pay the workers. I think they were afraid of public opinion if they tried to take the state funding for furloughed workers, which is supposed to be for companies that are in difficulty.
Q) How significant do you believe the Court ruling is in terms of the health security of French workers as a whole during the Covid-19 crisis?
Yes, that was one of our principal hopes. We think this ruling creates a jurisprudence; a law that will be useful for other cases. Clearly, if you read the statement of the Judge, it will help for people who have the same situation in other factories in France, and in other countries.
Q) How important is organising internationally to Solidaires?
We were already building an international network of Amazon workers before this crisis. About ecological questions, about employment questions, about work conditions, etc. And of course about the aggressive policy of Amazon against unions.
We had a meeting a few months ago in Brussels of Amazon workers internationally, and we plan to do another one in France later in the year, though we will have to see what is possible.
Q) The Covid-19 crisis comes after the wave of pension reform strikes and protests in France from December last year to February. The Yellow Vests movement had rocked France in 2018 and 2019. How do you interpret the situation in France now?
That’s a very complex question. I tell you what I think, it’s only my opinion. I think the social contestation has been increasing for a few years in France. Not only in France, in other countries. I think the anger is growing.
The Yellow Vests were the first wave. It was the revolt of people who mainly weren’t in unions, many of them were even of the opinion that unions are also corrupt. We did a lot of work to try to connect with some of the Yellow Vests and in the end it worked – we connected. That was the first wave, and that was the first time that ‘Jupiter Macron’, as we call him, agreed to give concessions to the demands of the social movement. The second wave was this big strike and social movement over pensions.
The pandemic changes everything. It has opened the eyes of people who previously had some confidence in the government and to the French state. People see that the government is objectively lying on some points. For example, yesterday the government changed again what they are saying is going to happen with the confinement period. It’s like a pilotless plane.