French Amazon workers protest in coronavirus pushback

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SARAN, France/PARIS (Reuters) – Several hundred Amazon workers protested in France on Wednesday, calling on the online retailer to cease operations or make it easier for employees not wanting to work during the coronavirus outbreak to stay away.

Retailers across France were ordered to shut over the past weekend as the country stepped up measures to try to control the disease, with only stores providing food and other basic goods or services allowed to operate.

Online deliveries are still allowed, however.

At an Amazon warehouse and shipping center at Saran just outside Orleans, a city south of Paris, some 250-300 workers staged a strike, gathering outside and calling for its closure. It normally employs some 1,800 full-time staff.

“We feel really unsafe and I’ve got colleagues who are coming to work feeling fearful,” said Richard Vives, from the CAT union, who was demonstrating with other worker representatives.

Unions have argued that Amazon delivers very few groceries and many other goods are not essential and should therefore consider closures.

Amazon said it was adhering to all sanitary guidelines, adding that it was prioritizing and making space in warehouses for key products such as household staples and hygiene or medical supplies as online demand soars globally.

It declined to comment on the situation at Saran and in other French centers.

Julien Vincent, who represents Amazon logistics workers for France’s CFDT union, estimated that 30%-40% of Amazon employees in France had now dropped out of work for fear of contagion or because they had to keep children at home after French schools closed. The company had called on temporary workers to make up for any shortages, he added.

Amazon had also offered to negotiate salary increases for those who stayed on, he said.

Several hundred people at Amazon have now sought to exercise a French right to stop work while still receiving full pay, unions said.

Protesters at the Saran site were also demonstrating for that right, an official at the CGT union there said, saying that Amazon had contested its usage.

UNEASE SPREADS

Defining what services are vital is proving problematic in France, with the unease among staff spreading to other online retailers like La Redoute, which is still operational and where workers are pushing back too, to mail employees or those in banks and naval construction.

Some companies like carmaker Renault or luxury handbag manufacturer Hermes have moved to close their factories to protect workers.

CGT representatives for staff at Franco-Italian chipmaker STMicro – a supplier to iPhone maker Apple and electric carmaker Tesla – wrote to company bosses on Wednesday asking for its French factories to be temporarily shut.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said employees in key sectors still had to go to work as long as sanitary measures were in place. He did not provided an exhaustive rundown of companies and sub-sectors.

Some businesses have also hit out saying the shutdown is lopsided. Among products it will now prioritize for delivery and storage, Amazon has included books – which some smaller sellers perceived as a blow.

“People couldn’t come (to my store) on Sunday to stock up. And so they all went on Amazon instead,” said Marie-Rose Guarnieri, who had to close her bookshop in Paris’ Montmartre district to comply with government orders.