Convoy protests ignoring real hardships truckers face, Peel drivers warn

Truckers in Peel Region say the convoy protest that has gripped Ottawa for more than a week isn't addressing the real problems they face — and they're trying to shift the conversation away from vaccine mandates and toward stopping abuse and wage theft in the industry.

Driver abuse, wage theft some of the most pressing issues, truckers say

Arshdeep Singh, left, and Attar Sodhi say they'll keep fighting for truckers' rights with targeted protests, government lobbying and social media awareness. (Submitted )

Truckers in Peel Region say the convoy protest that has gripped Ottawa for more than a week isn't addressing the real problems they face — and they're trying to shift the conversation away from COVID-19 vaccine mandates and toward stopping abuse and wage theft in the industry.

Attar Sodhi, a 37-year-old Brampton resident and truck driver, says very few of the protesters in Ottawa are South Asians, who make up more than half of the truckers operating in the Greater Toronto Area, according to some estimates. The protests are sparking debate across the country, but especially in Peel, where trucking and warehousing account for a large percentage of local jobs.

"Something else is happening behind the scenes, because the real issues are completely different," Sodhi told CBC News.

With 90 per cent of truck drivers vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the Canadian Trucking Alliance, the majority of the industry is sitting out the convoy protest, which started in response to vaccine mandates imposed on essential workers crossing the Canada-U.S. border. Another convoy protest has set up this weekend in downtown Toronto.

The Peel drivers' concern is reflected in a recent Toronto Star investigation, which showed long-haul truckers have filed thousands of complaints about shady labour practices, abysmal safety standards and missed wages from companies that sidestep all regulations.

Sodhi is part of the Naujawan Support Network, a grassroots organization in Peel that aims to help international students and other young workers dealing with mistreatment and exploitation. The group has been highlighting the issue of lost wages for truck drivers and other vulnerable groups for months.

He says the Ottawa convoy is missing a crucial opportunity to talk about companies that get away with misclassifying truck drivers as contractors so they don't have to give them things like overtime pay and benefits.

Arshdeep Singh, 30, is also a trucker and a member of the Naujawan Support Network. He says truckers also deal with threats of deportation from employers, who send them out on long assignments despite rough weather conditions and lack of rest.

Trucks are parked on Metcalfe Street as a rally against COVID-19 restrictions, which began as a cross-country convoy protesting a federal vaccine mandate for truckers, continues in Ottawa, on Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022. (The Canadian Press)

"These are the issues that have been here since the last 10, 15 years," said Singh. "I do not know why the government is not looking after these issues."

According to Sodhi, the support network has more than 500 members and has heard of over 900 cases of documented wage theft from truck drivers and other vulnerable groups. He says more protests aimed at wage theft by big truck employers are in the works.

'We have to take care of other people'

Some truckers say it's been difficult watching the protesters in Ottawa speak out against vaccines and other public health measures, when they got immunized against COVID-19 so they could provide for their families and protect the wider community.

"I support truckers all the time, but ... this is a totally different matter. This is a matter of security and safety," said Nachhattar Singh Chohan, the owner of a freight company in Mississauga.

"We have to take care of other people too."

Nachhattar Chohan, who runs a freight company in Mississauga, stands amongst a few of his trucks in Mississauga, Ont., on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

Chohan started an organization called the Indian Trucking Association in 2009 and says it had up to 2,000 members at its height, although it's now inactive. Throughout the years, he's heard of problems such as unsafe driving conditions for drivers and inconsistent and unfair inspection standards. He says these abuses are still going on..

"Nothing [has been] done up to now."

Tackling abuse 'critically important'

Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra met with truckers in Mississauga on Friday ahead of the planned convoy demonstration in Toronto.

"All credible trucking organizations have distanced themselves from the protests in Ottawa," he said.

The Ontario Trucking Association (OTA) and the Canadian Alliance of Truckers (CTA) are two of those organizations.

Stephen Laskowski, president of the Ontario Trucking Association and the Canadian Trucking Alliance. (Ontario Trucking Association)

OTA president Stephen Laskowski says abuse and mistreatment of truckers is a rapidly growing problem and affects at least 20 per cent of the industry.

"These carriers are using this underground economy with labour misclassification and labour abuse, [as] a way to grow very fast and profitably," said Laskowski.

"And if it's not being stopped, then others get involved in it, as well."

He says while the federal and provincial governments are making progress, they need to do more to speed up change.

"It's a critically important issue for governments to deal with labour issues to stop the abuses and to make our industry stronger," said Laskowski.

"Growth of the underground economy and labour abuses shouldn't be tolerated by anyone in government."