Future Tense

France Restricts Amazon Delivery During the Pandemic

An aerial view of a person walking alone on a street. They're wearing black clothes, blue shoes, and a surgical mask, and they're carrying a box and a small parcel.
A delivery worker carries an Amazon box in Paris on Wednesday. Joel Saget/Getty Images

Amazon has become a lifeline for many during the coronavirus pandemic. Stuck at home, people have turned to the tech giant to get them through the crisis. Groceries, a new pajama set, another quarantine puzzle—all are only a few clicks away. Amazon has had to hire more than 100,000 new employees in the past few weeks to keep up. But the workers who pack, distribute, and ship these goods are bearing the brunt of our impulse buys on a daily basis, and often in unsafe warehouses. Without external regulations, individuals are left weighing which goods they can ethically order from Amazon in the middle of a pandemic.

Except for the French, that is. On Tuesday, France started to restrict Amazon’s business amid COVID-19 shutdowns. The Nanterre Court of Justice ruled that Amazon can receive, prepare, and deliver only essential goods: food, medicine, and hygiene products. The court gave Amazon 24 hours to comply or face a fine of 1 million euros per day and per violation. The court has also required Amazon to assess “occupational risks inherent in the COVID-19 epidemic” at its six warehouses in the country, according to the ruling seen by CNN. The ruling came after Union syndicale Solidaires, a French workers union, filed a complaint last week that accused Amazon of endangering workers’ lives.

Amazon plans to appeal the decision, but for now the company has decided to close its warehouses in France, which employ about 10,000 people, from Thursday through at least next Monday. Amazon will use the temporary closures to assess the risks of COVID-19 in its facilities, Reuters reported, in the hopes of returning to business as usual. “We’re puzzled by the court ruling given the hard evidence brought forward regarding security measures put in place to protect our employees,” the company said in a statement. An Amazon spokesperson also told CNN that the company has “deployed an additional 127,000 packs of wipes, more than 27,000 litres of hand sanitizing gel, as well as over 1.5 million masks to our sites” in France. The spokesperson also noted additional temperature checks, social distancing measures, and janitorial teams. But on March 21, Mediapart released audio recordings of top Amazon executives in France saying the company hasn’t taken necessary precautions to protect its employees.

Since the start of the pandemic, Amazon’s operations have sparked concern and protests worldwide. Amazon warehouse workers have staged strikes in Italy and Spain. And the recent walkouts in Chicago, Michigan, and Staten Island, New York, have garnered significant attention in the U.S. Meanwhile, workers in at least 74 warehouses and delivery facilities across the U.S. have contracted COVID-19, according to the Washington Post, and one has died. As its workers call for safer conditions, Amazon has fired at least four employees who have publicly condemned the company’s treatment of warehouse workers. An Amazon spokeswoman told the Guardian that two of the employees were fired for “repeatedly violating internal policies.” The other two, the company says, “violat[ed] social distancing guidelines.”

Yet while protests may hurt the company’s public image, and one country’s restrictions will temporarily affect revenue, Amazon still stands to benefit from people’s habits during the pandemic. On Tuesday, Amazon stock hit a new record high of $2,283 per share. Not only is COVID-19 causing people to use Amazon more than ever, but it’s also—perhaps permanently—changing the way we buy goods, including groceries. “When this is over, I think this could be the biggest boon ever to Amazon,” David Kahan, the U.S. CEO of Birkenstock, told Recode. For now, Amazon is hiring 75,000 more employees (in addition to the 100,000 it’s already brought on) to meet surging customer demand. Ethical quandaries aside, as long as people have access to Amazon throughout the pandemic, they’ll keep buying—and not just the essentials.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.