As It Happens

Ontario lockdown doesn't do anything to help warehouse workers, says advocate

Ontario-wide lockdown measures set to kick in on Boxing Day leave the province's most vulnerable workers in the lurch, says advocate Gagandeep Kaur.

Gagandeep Kaur says those who process online shopping orders still working in overcrowded conditions

Critics say Amazon has done too little to protect the health and safety of its workers, even as founder Jeff Bezos became the richest man in the world. (Mark Lennihan/The Associated Press)

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Ontario-wide lockdown measures set to kick in on Boxing Day leave the province's most vulnerable workers in the lurch, says advocate Gagandeep Kaur.

Starting on Dec. 26, all non-essential businesses in the province will close or switch to curbside pickup, and restaurants will offer takeout only. 

But warehouses, food processing plants, and manufacturing facilities are largely exempt from the new shutdown order — despite accounting for about 21.6 per cent of active outbreaks in Ontario, according to provincial data

Kaur is an organizer with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, and a member of the Warehouse Workers Centre in Brampton, Ont. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. 

Ms. Kaur, what will these lockdown measures coming into effect on Saturday mean for the workers who you represent?

Not much has changed for the fate of these essential workers, because the industries that they are working in, the workplaces that they are employed at, they are essential not just for our region.

If you know the warehouses from [Peel Region], they supply the food, the other essential products to all over Canada. The transportation industry based ... in Peel region is the one that provides all the supplies ... to our entire nation.

So all these workers, they will be at work. They will be working under the similar conditions. And this lockdown measure will not make much of a difference in their lives.

What are you hearing about those conditions? What are the workers telling you about what they're seeing and experiencing in those warehouses?

A lot of people, they are working from home these days, so what that has caused ... the reliance and demand of online services [to spike] high.

The workers working in ... the fulfilment centres that process these orders ... have told us that because of the increase in the demand, these employers have hired even more workers to address the needs ... making it really impossible for workers inside to maintain that safe social distance at all time.

That is the No. 1 complaint that workers who are employed in warehouses have actually mentioned.

The other thing is some of the employers, they are not very considerate when it comes to the safety. Their main priority is production at the time. So if a worker wants to follow proper safety protocols, they cannot because then they can face penalties from the employers for working too slow.

What, you know, workers are put through to make things happen, to make our dreams become a reality, I would say that they are just experiencing a complete nightmare.- Gagandeep Kaur, Warehouse Workers Centre 

Of the cases that have been reported, more than 400 reportedly have occurred at Amazon warehouses in Ontario, [according to a source in the National Post]. And a spokesperson for Amazon in Canada has told us that the company has a robust social distancing program in place at its warehouses. You're saying you're hearing otherwise. Do you feel the company is doing what it can to address those concerns?

No, I don't think so.

What I've heard from the workers is that the concept of social distancing or other safety protocols, they are only at the entrances. As soon as you enter inside these facilities, it is a totally different world.

And I understand that, you know, it's kind of like a fascinating concept where we can just [in a] few clicks, you know, order anything from a box of chocolates to big screen TV, and it is at our doorsteps within the next 24 to 48 hours.

But if we look at the other end of the bargain and what, you know, workers are put through to make things happen, to make our dreams become a reality, I would say that they are just experiencing a complete nightmare.

It all comes down at the cost of their health and safety.

Amazon says that its measures for safety include taped markings on floors, signage. They've spread out chairs and tables. They staggered the shift start times and workstations. They have handwashing stations, more janitorial staff. What more would you like to see them do?

I understand and I agree there have been certain changes that have been brought up in these warehouses ... [but] they have kept on hiring more people.

Rather than congesting the same place with more people and more work, it would have made more sense if they would have maybe, you know, leased out another property and, you know, shifted some of the work there so that it's not that whole congestion.

And especially now during the Christmas season, the volume, the number of items that people have processed and the orders that this company has received, they have skyrocketed, and people are working, like, six-day consecutive 60-hour shifts.

One of the key messages that we've heard since the beginning of this pandemic from all levels of government is if you have any kind of symptoms — even if it seems like it's next to nothing, like a cold symptom, anything — that you should stay home until you ensure that you are not carrying COVID-19. Do the workers that you're speaking with feel that they can do that, that they can stay home?

No, definitely not, because the majority of the warehouse workers, they are the temporary workforce. They do not have access to the paid sick leave that the employer might be offering them.

So in the absence of any paid sick leave ... basically what we are telling them at that stage is that they will have to pick between their life and their livelihood. So if they decide to stay home and if they are experiencing some of the symptoms, that would mean that they would be losing the pay for that day.

Workplaces major driver of COVID-19 outbreaks in Peel Region

3 years ago
Duration 2:16
Ontario’s Peel Region, just west of Toronto, has long been a hotspot for COVID-19, but the high number of warehouses and transportation facilities may be partly to blame.

Amazon disputes that. You know, they say that if someone has a confirmed case of COVID-19 or who is required to isolate because they may have been exposed to COVID-19, that those people get up to 14 days of paid leave. That does not constitute paid sick leave?

What workers have told us [is] that the paid leave for 14 days that Amazon has instituted is only for workers who are tested positive.

The Ontario ... Ministry of Labour ... says that it is hiring an additional 100 inspectors. What else would you like to see from the province in terms of ensuring worker safety?

More, you know, workplaces need to be inspected ... and there should be tougher penalties for the employers who violate these health and safety protocols.

Just recently, there was an article out [in the Toronto Star] where the Ministry of Labour conducted almost 31,500 onsite inspections, and it was just one employer that faced a financial penalty.

What do you want consumers to think about, given how many of us are ordering more and more goods online and increasing the volumes of these warehouses? What should the people who are doing the buying be thinking about?

Whenever we sit down, you know, on a computer or a device and we make that order, I just want consumers to be considerate that, you know, there is a person who will be processing that order. There is a person who will be packing that order. There is a person who will be delivering that item to their doorstep. So be considerate of their safety.

I think it's time where we should start making these decisions wisely of what we should order or, you know, what is essential for our lives and what is not.

Given everything that we've been talking about, when you look at these new restrictions in Ontario, where do you think it leaves warehouse workers? Where do they fit in terms of priority here?

I understand that government wanted to give some, you know, leverage to businesses and some time to businesses. But I believe that the health and safety of the workers should be made a priority. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.