Toronto

Amazon employees flag health concerns in Canadian warehouses

Physical distancing while working inside an Amazon warehouse can get tricky, especially since the company still tracks workers' productivity during the pandemic.

E-commerce giant has put in place physical distancing measures to protect workers during COVID-19

The Amazon warehouse near Ottawa's eastern border in April 2020. (Jonathan Dupaul/CBC)

Physical distancing while working inside an Amazon warehouse can get tricky, especially since the company still tracks workers' productivity during the pandemic.

The e-commerce giant has hired 1,000 new employees to boost its fulfillment centres and delivery network in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta.

Amazon workers in the Greater Toronto Area say the new hires, especially in the warehouses' narrow aisles and locker rooms, are a big problem. 

"If you want to hit your rate, you're going to be bumping into people," said one order picker at a GTA facility.

"Even if you've been distancing the whole day, if you go to your locker you're in each other's face the whole time because it's a very small space," the order picker said. 

They were granted confidentiality by CBC because they say they fear losing their job for speaking out.

One Amazon worker granted anonymity by CBC said a $2 pay hike offered by Amazon at the start of the pandemic is 'insulting.' (Radio-Canada)
 

At least 3 cases in Canada

Amazon tells CBC it is staggering work shifts, frequently disinfecting its facilities, doing temperature checks and handing out masks to its employees every day.

"There's still a lot of criss-crossing that's happening, and now with more people, there's even more," another worker said.

So far, Amazon has reported two positive cases of COVID-19 at its Canadian sites. 

It remains unclear whether employees were infected while on the job.

The first case was in its fulfillment centre on Boundary Road in rural east Ottawa and the second in a warehouse just north of Calgary.

In an email to Radio-Canada last week, Amazon confirmed a third case at its Bolton, Ont., facility.

Advocacy group calls for more protections

Gagandeep Kaur, organizer with the Warehouse Workers Centre, says hiring hundreds of workers during a pandemic goes against the physical distancing measures Amazon implemented.

"That just really defeats the purpose," she said.

Her organization launched an online petition, asking Amazon to better protect its workers.
 
Amazon has raised wages by $2 per hour through the end of April for workers in their Canadian operations, a move major grocery chains and other essential services have also undertaken.

Employees will also receive double their regular hourly rate for every overtime hour from March 15 to May 9.

"We want to recognize our employees who are playing an essential role for people at a time when many of the services that might normally be there to support them are closed," Amazon spokesperson Andrew Gouveia said in an email.

Wages typically start at $15.50 per hour, with full-time associates also receiving performance bonuses and stock awards, according to the company.

"I think we're pretty well being ripped off," one Amazon employee said. "Our health is at risk."

Another described the $2 pay hike as "insulting."

James Thomson is former business head of Amazon Services and currently works as a consultant. (Submitted by James Thomson)

James Thomson, a former Amazon executive, says this two-dollar-an-hour "hazard pay" appears rather low, especially in a context where warehouse workers express health concerns.

"They're taking on a lot of physical risk in order to be able to reduce the risk for the consumer who otherwise doesn't have to leave his or her home," the former business head of Amazon Services said.

The e-commerce giant says employees' health and safety are a top priority: "We continue to consult with medical and health experts, and take all recommended precautions in our buildings and stores to keep people healthy."
 

About the Author

Philippe de Montigny is Radio-Canada’s business correspondent in Toronto.

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