By Caroline Pailliez and Mourad Guichard
PARIS/SARAN, France (Reuters) – Amazon <AMZN.O> workers in France are coming under unacceptable pressure, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Thursday, after staff complained they faced not getting paid if they stopped showing up due to fears of coronavirus contamination.
Several hundred employees protested in France on Wednesday, calling on the U.S. e-commerce giant to halt operations during the epidemic or allow staff to take up a French right to walk out on full pay if they are endangered at work.
The backlash centers on whether Amazon – as well as other companies that remain operational in France and elsewhere – is taking sufficient measures to protect staff and whether its activities are vital, as European states order schools, restaurants and swathes of stores to shut to fight the pandemic.
The French government has encouraged factory employees to keep working if possible and if sanitary conditions are adequate, but decried the way Amazon had handled the situation with its staff.
“These pressures are unacceptable, we’ll let Amazon know,” Le Maire told France Inter radio station.
Amazon has reported a surge in online sales globally as the coronavirus crisis spreads, and launched a drive to recruit 100,000 people, as well as offering extra pay to existing employees. In France, it would amount to an extra 2 euros ($2.16) per hour for workers in areas like packing or transport.
The world’s largest online retailer has also said it is prioritizing some products over others and making room in warehouses for key items such as hygiene and medical supplies, pet food or household staples.
The company said in response to Le Maire’s comments that the health of its staff was its top priority, adding that it was reinforcing procedures at its sites and that it “respected all workers’ rights,” including the French right to walk out.
A source familiar with the matter said that it would only apply if there was a justifiable threat to people’s health, however.
Some French workers are contesting the sanitary standards, and said they objected to potentially taking risks to help dispatch non-essential products from DVDs to sex toys.
“It’s impossible for the safety distances to be respected in the warehouses,” said one Amazon worker at a site in Lauwin-Planque, near Dunkirk in northern France, who declined to give her name.
“Our lockers are all stuck next to each other, when I come to get my belongings, we’re all rubbing shoulders.”
At Amazon’s center in Saran, south of Paris, others echoed this view.
“Everything is a problem, we keep crossing each in corridors and in the breakout area,” said Khaled Bouchajra, a worker and representative for the CGT union.
Unions could not say how many Amazon employees had worked on Thursday. Some stayed at home to look after children, which is permitted. But at least 80 were absent at Lauwin-Planque, according to representatives of the Sud-Solidaires union.
Amazon was hiring workers from temping agencies to make up for shortfalls, unions said.
Like other firms trying to keep up with a surge in online orders, Amazon is grappling with slower-than-usual deliveries.
A source close to French supermarket group Casino <CASP.PA> said there was a three day wait for home deliveries at some of its Monoprix stores.
Other companies in France are now trying to adjust to employee demands.
Chipmaker STMicroelectronics, a supplier to iPhone maker Apple and electric carmaker Tesla said on Thursday it had agreed to temporarily cut production in France by up to 50% as a result.($1 = 0.9264 euros)
(Additional reporting by Leigh Thomas, Mathieu Rosemain, Sarah White and Dominique Vidalon; Writing by Sarah White; Editing by Mark Potter and Keith Weir)