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France: Court Orders Amazon France to Limit Its Activity to Sale of Essential Items

(May 5, 2020) On April 14, 2020, the Tribunal Judiciaire (Trial Court) of Nanterre ordered the French subsidiary of Amazon to limit the activities of its warehouses to processing only orders for items that were essential in coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. Essential items were defined as food, hygiene, and medical products. The court gave Amazon France 24 hours to comply, after which it would incur fines of one million euros (about US$.1 million) per day and per infraction.

This decision followed a complaint from SUD, a trade union, accusing Amazon of violating article L4121-1 of the Code du travail (Labor Code) by disregarding the health and safety of its employees in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Article L4121-1 requires that employers “take the measures necessary to ensure the safety of and protect the mental and physical health of workers.” The court found that, by having over 100 employees working in an enclosed environment in each warehouse in a manner that made it impossible for them to comply with social distancing requirements, Amazon had failed to fulfill its legal obligation. While SUD requested that the court order Amazon to entirely cease all of its order fulfillment operations in France, the court declined to go that far, and instead ordered the company to limit its fulfillment to essential products, which, according to the trade union, represent about 10% of its merchandise. The court also ordered the company to pay 4,800 euros (about US$5,270) in damages to SUD.

Following this decision, Amazon closed all of its warehouses in France for a period of five days, from April 16 to April 20, to clean the premises and evaluate risks. Amazon also appealed the decision. On April 24, 2020, the Court of Appeals of Versailles confirmed the decision of the Tribunal judiciaire and gave Amazon 48 hours to organize its operations to limit order fulfillment to essential items. Part of the basis for Amazon’s appeal was that the trial court’s definition of essential items was ambiguous. The court of appeals lifted some of this ambiguity by defining essential items as those that were listed in certain specific categories on Amazon France’s website as of April 21, 2020. These specific categories include hi-tech and information technology, office, pet supplies, health, nutrition, personal care products, groceries, drinks, and maintenance.