Report Sheds Light on Poor Working Conditions for Warehouse Temporary Workers

Immigrant Workforce Exploited in Montreal Warehouses; Part of Wider Quebec Labour Issues, Say Advocates

  • Photo Esteban Cuevas, Graphic Joey Bruce and Breea Kobernick

Merelyn Aguirre’s voice cracked as she introduced herself. “Instead of crying, sometimes I write a song,” she said.

Her partner, Nicholas Cesar Aguirre, accompanied her with his guitar as she sang: “It’s been 15 years that I’ve been away from home, a thousand miles I’m here. I’m all alone, just trying to make a living, for my family that I miss.”

Nicholas is a temporary placement agency worker and member of the Association des travailleurs et travailleuses d’agences de placement—a branch of the Immigrant Workers Centre—where the couple performed their song on Nov. 23 at their headquarters in Côte-des-Neiges. Dozens of community members gathered to launch the “Warehouse Workers Commission Report.”

Aguirre was one of the ATTAP members who conducted a survey, summarized in the report, into conditions faced by temporary placement agency workers in Montreal warehouses over the last year. The IWC concluded that there’s “a business model within the logistics sector that is based on the hyper-exploitation of a work force largely composed of migrants.”

According to the IWC/ATTAP report, there are about 15,600 warehouse workers in Montreal. The report claims firms like Dollarama are now employing only temporary placement agency workers for distribution, over 90 per cent of whom are migrants, new immigrants, or asylum seekers from Haiti, francophone Africa, and Latin America.

Temporary employment has exploded recently amid a Quebec labour shortage. The province has announced measures to bring in more temporary foreign workers and reduce immigration. The move has drawn criticism from opposition parties, immigrant advocacy organizations, and business groups that say it’s economically unsustainable or xenophobic.

The use of placement agencies and flexible labour by warehouses creates gaps in responsibilities and promotes wage inequality, unsafe working conditions, and employment instability, according to the report.

Forty-two temporary placement workers were surveyed by the IWC. Almost 60 per cent of workers said they were paid less than a permanent worker doing the same job. 10 per cent were paid under minimum wage, 16.5 per cent worked more than full time, and almost half said they did not have proper safety equipment or sufficient training.

“You are not the staff of the company, and you are not the staff of the agency, so what are you?” said Olawale Ogundipe, a Nigerian immigrant who worked at a Dollarama warehouse.

“I think the employment procedures are not right because when the agencies […] hire you for a company, you are not staff of the company and you are not staff of the agencies, which means that you are just a tool in their hands,” he continued.

Ogundipe said he developed a cough from lack of adequate ventilation and overcrowding in the facility. When he broke his ankle, he was told by his supervisor to treat himself.

“Because you don’t have a contract or you don’t have a letter that stipulates the terms and conditions of your job, there’s nothing you can do,” he said. “It’s like a slave trade.”
The report comes as Montreal’s economy is growing. Unemployment is at a historic low, and Quebec’s labour shortage is only expected to worsen.

The report found that over $600 million in public and private money has been set aside for the expansion of logistic hubs in Montreal over five years and that in 2014 the greater Montreal area’s 336 warehouses pumped $368 million into Quebec’s economy.

It’s slavery—you have to use that word. You have to call the dog by its name.

Mohamed Barry

Advocates say this growth is possible because of the immigrant workforce doing jobs other people wouldn’t.

“There’s so many millions of dollars in profit but [the workers’] rights are not respected,” said Mohamed Barry, who came as an asylum seeker nine years ago and uses a cane due to an injury suffered in a warehouse job.

Afraid of having their applications for permanent residency thrown out, some newcomers have no choice but to accept precarious work, notes the report.

“There were some people with language barriers who couldn’t express themselves and some who were afraid to be refused immigration to Canada,” said Barry.

“It’s slavery—you have to use that word. You have to call the dog by its name,” he said.

Ze Benedicte Carole, an immigrant from Cameroon, told the audience at the launch about her experience working through a placement agency.

When she first arrived in Montreal, she had multiple roles. “I killed chickens and turkeys and cleaned the machines. The job I had should have been [done by] two people, but I was alone.”
“I worked seven days a week without rest for two years. I did a huge amount of work, but I was exploited. The agency didn’t pay you all the hours,” she said. “You’re like an animal, like a cow. If you get sick, you get thrown out.”

Andrés Fontecilla, Québec Solidaire MNA, said companies like Airbnb, Uber, and Amazon like to brand themselves as progressive but that “there’s a new kind of exploitation” of temporary workers.

“There’s complicity with the governments—not just the Quebec government, but all governments that are controlled by neoliberals,” he said. “It’s almost like, ‘We don’t want the immigrants, we just want the labour.’”

Fontecilla accused Premier François Legault of thinking of the Ministry of Immigration as a placement agency.

“You’re more than just a job, more than just a piece of paper, more than an experience,” he told the crowd. “You’re people who contribute to Quebec society.”

Mostafa Henaway, an organizer with the IWC, echoed these sentiments. “I think it sends a signal that people really are commodities and that immigration is like a tap you can turn on and off,” said Henaway of the Coalition Avenir Québec’s moves to cut immigration while recruiting more temporary foreign workers.

“If you want people to integrate, you would give them the same rights and possibilities that everybody else enjoys,” he said.

Henaway said conditions outlined in the warehouse report are part of a bigger problem and that other industries in Quebec are also marked by low-wage, temporary, immigrant labour.

According to “Invisible Workers,” a 2016 report by Santé Montréal, Quebec’s job market discriminates against immigrants and visible minorities, and the province fares worse than the rest of Canada. “Immigrants are three times more likely to have low-income jobs than individuals born in Quebec. Of all Canadian provinces, the gap is highest in Quebec,” the report stated.

In Montreal, immigrants are almost twice as likely to be unemployed and more likely to have poor-quality jobs than those born here, the report said, noting that the situation is worse than in other major Canadian cities.

Santé Montréal concluded that immigrants who are visible minorities are pushed to use temp agencies because of structural obstacles they face, such as discrimination and unrecognized qualifications.

Poor conditions like low wages and long hours—which don’t afford the time or money to pursue other employment or education—also mean they are often stuck working in these precarious roles.
ATTAP and the IWC are now calling for Quebec to adopt a decree—a sector-based collective agreement—which should include common workplace standards.

The Ministry of Labour, Employment, and Social Solidarity did not respond to The Link’s request for comment.

Despite the IWC/ATTAP report’s findings, the launch was a time for people to express solidarity with workers, enjoy musical performances and a Guinean feast, and continue conversations on mobilizing for labour rights.

Last year, the province passed Bill 176, which reforms issues facing warehouse workers. It introduced measures like equal pay for workers with different employment statuses doing the same work.

In anticipation of Amazon’s 2020 arrival, ATTAP stressed that now is the time for discussions on labour rights for migrant workers.

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