Metro Morning

Immigrant workers rally for better pay at Ontario Food Terminal

A group of predominantly immigrant workers who help unload produce and have set up a picket line outside Toronto’s main food distribution facility are simply trying to receive the same compensation many of their more established counterparts receive, says their union representative.

Some have not seen raise in 10 years, union says

The majority of the striking workers at Fresh Taste Produce at the Ontario food terminal immigrated to Canada from Tibet. They have no previous experience in labour relations, their union says. (Tony Smyth/CBC)

A group of predominantly immigrant workers who help unload produce and have set up a picket line outside Toronto's main food distribution facility are simply trying to receive the same compensation many of their more established counterparts receive, says their union representative.

These newcomers, many of whom are Tibetan, show up to work in the wee hours of the morning, with the first shift arriving at the Ontario Food Terminal at 1 a.m., working inconsistent hours with lower wages than their counterparts, said Teamsters Local 419 representative Ken Dean. 

The workers earns significantly less money than their counterparts at the food terminal, said Dean, adding some of them have not seen a raise in 10 years. Teamsters Local 419 said the workers have just joined the union but have yet to reach a first contract.

"They work for a far better wage, benefits and pension," Dean said Friday on CBC Radio's Metro Morning in reference to unionized workers. He added the non-union groups are finally taking advantage of the opportunity to earn more, despite knowing very little about labour rights. 

Tibetan immigrants are the life-blood of the Ontario Food Terminal. They are workers with no history of collective bargaining, that's part of what makes this week's labour dispute so interesting. 9:17

Their employer, Fresh Taste, supplies produce to retailers such Metro and Sobey's, and is one of many produce wholesalers at the terminal. 

Twelve workers formed a picket line early Thursday morning, trying to hold up traffic along the eastbound lanes of the Queensway in Etobicoke. According to Dean, the sticking point for the workers is the hourly wage.

"The wages run anywhere from $14 to $17, I believe, and our industry standard average is probably up around the $20 mark," he said.

Karma Tsetan works at another warehouse in the terminal and while he is not on strike himself, he is a Tibetan national and acts as an interpreter for his fellow employees.

"Most of the Tibetans are very newly immigrated to Canada," Tsetan told CBC Radio host Matt Galloway. "So for them to get [a] job right away with no Canadian experience is really, really hard."

'Very erratic' shifts

That's why Tsetan said most Tibetans end up working at the food terminal — it's one of the few places where people can get a job easily without English skills. The terminal is also near Parkdale, which is home to many Tibetan newcomers to Canada.

"The turnover is rather high, especially at the non-union companies," Dean said. "The hours of work are very, very erratic."

He added many newcomers simply aren't aware of what others are earning or what their rights may be in regards to organizing. It's only when the newcomers speak to those established in the industry do they realize they could be earning more, Dean said.

Despite one incident where a truck driver was clearly upset with those on strike, the rest of the workers at the food terminal were "largely supportive" of their actions Thursday, according to Dean. 

Fresh Taste Produce declined to comment on the issue.

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