Amazon generates criticism from employees in the United States and France

Amazon worker Chris Smalls protests lack of protection from Covid-19 outside warehouse in Staten Island, New York, March 30, 2020. JEENAH MOON / REUTERS

After France, the United States. While unions denounce security conditions in Amazon warehouses in France since the start of the containment, the e-commerce leader is facing increasing mobilization across the Atlantic. The dismissal of Chris Smalls, an employee who co-organized a work stoppage at a site in Staten Island, near New York, concentrated the protests.

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"We are shocked to hear that Amazon executives not only refused to respond to requests from their own workers, but fired one of the main whistleblowers, just after his brave action on Monday (March 30) ", write, wednesday 1er April, in an open letter, six major American unions, including the AFL-CIO, and several New York State senators and elected officials.

New York’s Democratic Mayor, Bill de Blasio, on Tuesday March 31 already announced an investigation by the city’s human rights official into the dismissal. The day before, New York prosecutor Letitia James asked for an investigation into this act "Immoral and inhuman". It must be conducted by the National Labor Relations Board, which regulates industrial disputes.

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For its part, Amazon refutes any link between the dismissal of Mr. Smalls and his internal activism. According to management, he was placed in preventive quarantine because he was in contact with a coronavirus patient. "But, despite this instruction to stay at home, paid, for fourteen days, he came to work, Monday March 30, putting the teams in danger ", assures Amazon.

A "crucial role" for the confined

This explanation is deemed "Ridiculous" by Mr. Smalls, who promises to continue the mobilization. Employees at several Amazon locations also held occasional strikes: in Chicago on Monday near Detroit on Wednesday and in the Queens neighborhood of New York on March 18. Employees of the Amazon subsidiary Whole Foods supermarket chain stopped work on Tuesday. They also protested protective measures deemed insufficient and requested the extension of paid sick leave to people who present with symptoms but who have not been tested. Previously, in Italy, unions had launched a strike at the Castel San Giovanni site, south of Milan.

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In response, Amazon estimates that these protests are in the minority and have had only a few dozen employees in the United States each – out of a total of 800,000 worldwide. The company insists that it has taken hygiene and social distancing measures, which ensure the safety of its employees. Jeff Bezos’s business also temporarily increased hourly wages by 2 euros. And announced on Thursday, April 2, that it had hired 80,000 people out of the 100,000 planned to continue business despite the epidemic.

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The e-commerce giant also presents itself as an infrastructure playing a "Crucial role" for the confined. Amazon has also announced prioritizing sales of "Essential products" on his platform. But this speech is disputed by the unions, according to which all types of products remain available. And the mobilization of employees considered to be precarious is supported in the United States by groups of protesting employees within digital giants such as collectives Google Walk Out for Real Change or Amazon Employees for Climate Justice.

Unfair competition

In France, an employee of the Brétigny-sur-Orge (Essonne) warehouse, sick with Covid-19, was placed in intensive care on Tuesday. This information, announced by the CGT on Wednesday, is confirmed by management. Three other employees were officially diagnosed with coronavirus at this site and another in Saran (Loiret). "But there are also dozens of suspected cases", adds Alain Jeault, CGT central delegate. The latter regrets that some sick employees are not tested.

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Absenteeism is very high in France, according to the unions, despite the management's refusal to pay employees who declare their right to opt out. It does not exceed 20% including leave for child care, says management.

" We do not understand that Amazon is authorized to pursue such an unessential activity, putting such risks to employees, reacted, Wednesday, Alma Dufour, campaign manager for the association Friends of the Earth, in a press release, denouncing unfair competition for small closed shops.

"Once it's white, once it's black"

"The government must not wait until there is a death to change lines! ", adds the environmental NGO. A reference to the words of the Minister of Labor, Muriel Pénicaud. "Amazon changed part (safety rules), but that’s not enough, the government representative declared on Sunday March 29 to the Grand Jury RTL /Le Figaro/ LCI. So we don't give up until it's the right measures to protect employees. " Butme Pénicaud had previously deemed the sanitary measures taken by Amazon satisfactory. "Once it's white, once it's black", puts Julien Vincent into perspective, CFDT central delegate.

On Thursday, Amazon announced the start of a distribution of employee masks starting Friday, April 3, worldwide. A long-standing demand from unions. The management always replies that the wearing of the mask is not part of the recommendations of the World Health Organization, but explains that the evolution of stocks can now meet this demand from some employees. Jeff Bezos’s business will also begin implementing employee temperature checks at site entrances. Another request from staff representatives.

"The measures taken by Amazon unfortunately still do not resolve the problem of the possible transmission of the virus by a physical medium, such as products or bins that colleagues must handle when making packages", Judge M. Vincent, of the CFDT.

The Intersyndicale is still calling for the lay-off of most Amazon employees. And still plans to file a criminal complaint for endangering the lives of others, in the name of the obligation to ensure the safety of employees provided for by the labor code. "Pretending to be exempt from your obligations on the pretext of applying government recommendations in matters of Covid-19 is a serious mistake", writes Mr. Vincent in an email sent Wednesday to management and the Ministry of Labor.

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