Tuesday Feb 25

Organizing and Advocating for Warehouse Workers in Montreal

 

The Commission on Warehouse Work grew out of the IWC’s organizing on the issue of placement agencies during the last 8 years. The first group of placement agency workers who met at the Centre were Dollarama warehouse workers. The meetings focused on basic labor rights. The Association des travailleurs et travailleuses d’agences de placements (ATTAP) was formed several years later as a worker-led organization of placement agency workers. ATTAP has continued to campaign for reforms to improve protections for all placement agency workers and takes action against violations of labor standards and health and safety conditions. ATTAP has promoted a series of demands for change, culminating in the recent reform of the Québec labor code that recognized the precarious situation of placement agency workers and introduced some reforms to address these injustices.

This project focuses specifically on the conditions warehouse workers face. There are several reasons for this. The first is that warehouse work has expanded as part of what is referred to as “logistics”. This reflects a shift in manufacturing to the global south as businesses chase low-wages and less regulated labor markets. In developed capitalist countries, profitable growth is based on the efficient distribution of goods from their arrival in the country to their sale in shops. This dynamic has structured warehouse workers’ labor conditions. The Commission on Warehouse Work explores this phenomenon from several vantage points: the general context of the emergence and importance of logistics and distribution in contemporary capitalism; the development of this sector in Montréal. The second section of this report will be based on the experiences of warehouse workers themselves. Worker-leaders from ATTAP have been contracted and trained to carry out interviews and group discussions with other workers to document the experiences and perceptions of a limited number of warehouse workers. In the third section of this report, we will describe examples of other organizations that have organized warehouse workers and lessons that can be learned from their experiences. Finally, we will discuss the various decrees that have been used to regulate sectors of the labor market as one strategy to improve the conditions of warehouse work.

The Commission’s overall goal is to deepen our understanding of warehouse work in Montréal. The aim of this Commission is to examine how changes in the global economy have transformed the logistics and distribution sectors in Montréal, how that transforms work, and the impact of this process of just-in time distribution on workers. The Commission also aims to explore how workers can organize for decent work in a critical sector in the Montréal economy and to develop a group of leaders within ATTAP who can contribute to the process of organizing for justice for warehouse workers.

Key Findings

• The Commission on Warehouse Work examines the economic forces that structure labor conditions in the logistics sector of Montreal, and the conditions faced by warehouse workers.

• Logistics is the crucial connection between supply and demand and is greatly important to an economy integrated in complex, international distribution networks and supply chains.

• The profit-based motive to meet increases in global consumer demand requires huge investment in logistics and transportation. This is especially true in Montreal, whose port is located between two major international trade regimes (CETA and USMCA), as the Atlantic shipping entrance to North America.

• To this end, large public and private funds have been set aside for expanding logistic hubs in the Greater Montreal Region, amounting to over $600 million in 5 years.

• In 2014, the GMR’s 366 warehousing establishments contributed $368 million to Quebec’s economy.

• The central role of logistics and transportation in connecting supply to demand produces exceptional demands for optimization, efficiency, and productivity, heavily incentivizing labor exploitation.

• Employment in warehousing and storage nearly doubled over 10 years, with the demand for warehouse employment increasing working poverty in Montreal by 30% from 2001-2012.

• The profit motive is enhanced by employment through temporary placement agencies, which facilitate cheap and flexible labor, unsafe labor conditions, and stifled collective action.

• Temporary placement agencies attract some of the most vulnerable workers, especially immigrant workers who have fewer employment options.

• Warehouse workers comprise 10% of employees hired through temporary placement agencies.

• There are an estimated 15,600 warehouse workers in the Greater Montreal Region.

• Labor conditions could be improved throughout Quebec by enacting a collective agreement decree.

• A collective agreement decree is a legal extension of a collective agreement to all workers in an occupation, whether unionized or not.

• Decrees cover common labor standards like wages, holidays, leave, and equipment.

• Securing a decree would require finding a collective agreement for warehouse workers that protects workers significantly, i.e. beyond applicable labor standards legislation.

Logistics, Distribution and Labor

The growth and importance of the logistics and distribution sectors in the 21st century has been central to the global economy. As the Research Chair on Logistics and Transportation at HEC (École des hautes études commerciales) in Montréal explains, “The accrued complexity of global manufacturing and distribution networks as well as supply chain integration efforts have … drawn attention to the importance of logistics. In turn, these changes have made customers increasingly demanding in terms of product availability and delivery times. To ensure that the right products are delivered in the right place, at the right time, and at the least possible cost, companies are thus increasingly turning their attention to the optimization of their logistics and transportation networks”.

The central aim of the logistics and distribution sectors is, therefore, optimization and efficiency. The rapid turnover of goods is essential. If goods sit in warehouses, profits drop. The faster goods move from their arrival in ports to the shelves of stores, or the doors of consumers, the greater the profit. The growth of on-line sales has intensified this push for a high turnover of goods. Labor advocate and writer Kim Moody describes this constant push for speed as “management by stress.”

The restructuring of production of goods and services and the so-called “logistics revolution” has led to corresponding shifts all along in the supply chain. One aspect of these changes is the creation of key clusters or nodes, tied to place; for example, ports and highways. As a result, enormous “logistic clusters” of transportation hubs, massive warehouses and distribution centers are built, most often near large cities where maritime, rail, and ground transportation intersect. In the US, major hubs are found in Chicago, Los Angeles, and around the New Jersey Turnpike. As well, these hubs require public funding to be built.

Importantly, these logistics clusters require large pools of labor. Chicago, for example, has between 150,000 to 200,000 warehouse workers. However, to be profitable for owners, labor must be cheap. This is made possible by large concentrations of unemployed or under-employed working-class people in many urban centers. In Canada, workers are drawn from newly arrived immigrants who do not have access to other professions or jobs regardless of their credentials and training. With few other opportunities and a need to earn money, many immigrants are forced to take whatever jobs are available to them, often precarious and low-paid warehouse work through placement agency. As Moody writes, workers, who “fill the warehouses and move things around are paid poorly and treated as dispensable” (p. 61).

The increase and development of precarious work through temporary placement agencies has allowed the logistics sector to expand. These agencies free employers of responsibility for working conditions and create employees that can be moved in and out of work on demand. Further, agencies make it almost impossible for these employees to unionize or engage in other forms of collective action. All of this allows employers and firms to download risk, avoid unionization, and maintain a flexible labor supply to maximize profits. Firms such as Dollarama in Montréal have turned to exclusively employing temporary placement agency workers to maintain a system of lean and rapid distribution without incurring the costs of a non-agency workforce.

Despite all of this, workers in this sector, especially warehouses, do have potential power. First of all, warehouses represent new sites of concentration of workers. Large scale of factories were the nidus of influential labour movements in the early era of industrialization. Since most of large scale of production facilities have been offshored toward the global South, warehouses can be and should be sites of revitalization of labour organizing of 21st century. In addition, given the importance of the sector along the supply chain, slowing or disrupting distribution even for an hour has serious financial consequences in terms of profit. The key challenge in exercising this power is organizing workers in temporary jobs with high turnover rates to take action.

Logistics and Warehouses in Montréal

Warehouses are an essential part of trade and commerce. They are an integral part of the transportation, logistics, wholesale, retail, and manufacturing sectors.

According to Montreal’s economic development plan for 2018-2022, the goal is an “open and attractive metropolitan area” promoting Greater Montréal’s ability to attract and retain businesses and people. Logistics was to become a key component for the development of the Montreal economy and a driver of growth.

This is in step with changes in the global economy more broadly. Montreal will develop its competitive advantage through the development of its intermodal hub, improving its air, rail, water, and road transportation and related infrastructure. In 2012, Montreal International formed CargoM, which would then institutionalize the cluster of logistics and transportation sector in the Montreal region. “Its mission is to bring together all the players in logistics and transportation of goods in Greater Montreal whose activities support the Montreal hub with common goals and concerted action, with a view to promoting cohesion, competitiveness, growth and expansion” (CargoM, 2014: 6). The logistics and transportation sector, according to Montreal International, is well positioned, despite the competition from other Canadian cities and in the United States, because of its access to 100 million consumers in a one-day radius (Ibid).

In addition, logistics hubs are a physical realization of global trade agreements. The Montreal port is located between two major international trade regimes. CETA The Comprehensive European Trade Agreement, and within NAFTA (now called USMC Agreement). With this in mind, the Ontario-Quebec Continental Gateway and Trade Corridor has been developed. Since 2007, this joint initiative of the transportation ministries of three governments (Federal, Ontario and Quebec) has looked to the Continental Gateway as “a key component of Canada’s multi-modal transportation system.” in order to capitalize  on the legal arrangements for the free flow of goods and services. As Timothy Lane, Deputy Governor of the Bank of Canada argues that the development of logistics positions Canada as a key player in the in the world economy.

Today, we can look across the Pacific Ocean where Asia is urbanizing at a breakneck pace. China and India are housing the equivalent of the entire population of Canada every 18 months. A massive middle class is being formed, growing by 70 million people each year—people who represent a rapidly rising share of global demand for all types of goods. The opportunities are vast. In view of the scope of these changes and the speed with which they are taking place, it will be critical to anticipate change and make the long-term investments needed to prepare for it. Transport and logistics will be an integral part of all of these efforts. (Lane, 2012).

Montreal International’s goal “was to improve transport and logistics efficiency in Greater Montreal, and determine the key elements needed to attract new distribution centers and to make Montreal a hub that is both recognized, and sought after for its competitive strength” (CargoM, 2017). In order to remain competitive, cities require massive investments to speed the process of transportation and logistics sector. The focus of the development was predicated on two factors: access to industrial space and land. The second, according to Debris and Heitz; “In Montreal too, a certain number of logistics zones, especially those associated with the large distribution centers of major retailing chain-stores, have spread around the city’s region, outside the main logistics sites which are structured by intermodality.” (Debris and Heitz, 2016(8)). Areas in the West of Montreal such as the Dorval area outside of the major airport and Vaudreuil-Soulanges, have become major logistic hubs.

Warehouses

Information about warehouses specifically is difficult to isolate; statistics available pair them with transportation, for example, the Institut de la statistique du Québec’s annual report on the labor market. In 2017, there were 206,800 jobs in transportation and warehousing in Québec, which represents a 5.7% increase over the previous year. 366 of the 6,297 establishments involved in transportation and logistics are in the warehousing sector. In 2014, these warehouses contributed $368 million total to the economy. 203 of these had more than 5 employees. According to Statistics Canada, that same year, 5,900 people were employed in companies where warehousing was the company’s key activity. In 2012, the Greater Montréal Area had 10.3 million square feet. of interior warehousing space related to the transportation and logistics sectors. Approximately 62% of this was being used. An additional 22,000 feet of space was available in exterior containers or trailers.

Even though we cannot find statistical data, high proportion of migrant and recent immigrant workers in warehouses is observed, according to testimonies of workers, especially in those non-unionized and dependent on placement agencies. For example, at Dollarama warehouse, more than ninety percent of employees are recent immigrants or migrants, including a large number of asylum seekers, coming mostly from Haiti, Francophone Africa and Latin America, while those in managerial positions are white non-immigrants. Racialization is therefore one aspect of warehouse work.

Implanting high technology and automating task are another aspect of warehouse work. As many people worry, it can reduce the number of employees, replacing the work by machine. The degree of automation is however far different from one warehouse to the other, and the influence of technology is more complex. Many Amazon warehouses across the world, for example, are equipped with artificial intelligent (AI) facilities, transporting and sorting automatically goods and materials, while other warehouses, as Dollarama case, are employing huge numbers of workers. For the second case, workers enter involuntarily into competition with machines, setting their wage level as low as possible. The automation of certain places thus engenders concentration of low-paid precarious workers in other places, whose work is coercively paced and tightly controlled by means of high technology. Socalled “digital Taylorism” is observed par excellence in warehouse work.

Government Subsidies Lead to Logistics growth

The neoliberal model of logistics was not solely predicated on technological innovation but massive state support for the sector. This issue of government support of infrastructure within the Montreal area was the most pertinent issue for competitiveness according to CargoM and KPMG in a 2014 report. This was echoed by the OECD Territorial report on the competitiveness of the Montreal economy (OECD, 2004). Reinforcing two dynamics the first public subsidies and infrastructure projects that were geared towards the logistics sector.

In 2015 the Philippe Couillard government with the Community Area of Montreal announced the creation of support of several dense logistic hubs modeled after the techno-parks. The provincial government had allocated $400 million to these new logistics hubs over 5 years, with an additional $100 million for infrastructure improvements (Gazette, 2015). The allocation of funding was also in step with private-public partnership. As the maritime strategy which would allocate 5 billion of state funding 4 billion of private capital was to make maritime ports and related industries competitive. Couillard was blunt about the role of the Quebec state. “To do business and make a profit, that’s a fantastic opportunity and I know that our private sector is going to take advantage of this (Couillard in Linde, 2015).”

Beyond direct subsidies from different levels of the state, the power of capital to claim the need to maximize competitive advantage has focused on cost reduction for private investors. Such measures have been to access land, tax credits, and labor costs have been at the center of the development of the logistics sector in Montreal. According to the KPMG report the costs of distribution centers and industrial space Montreal remained one of the lower costs for industrial space in comparison to other logistics hubs (2014). Despite cheaper land costs, the business community had cited the disadvantage of tax credits and subsidies given to private enterprises in US cities. Even though as a result of the pressures of Quebec employers, Quebec has one of the lowest corporate tax rates, which stands at 26.9%, in comparison to New Jersey which stands above 40% (Montreal International, 2018). At the same time companies involved in e-business companies such as Shopify or online retailers enjoy a 30% tax refund on salaries. While corporations within the logistics and transportation sector and major retailers have profited from global supply chains, cheap labor in the global south, the need for cheap and flexible labor has been central to the development of this sector in Montreal.

Low Wages in Warehouse Sector in Montreal

Retaining businesses within the global economy has meant constantly creating a business-friendly environment, including lower-wages. This is a central feature within the warehouse, logistics sectors and hubs. Wages in Montreal are lower than in Ontario, and also at the same time even lower than other cities in the United States outside of the right to work states. According to KPMG there are over 118,000 workers in the transportation and logistics sector in Montreal (2014). Making it one of the largest sectors in terms of employment in the Montreal region. According to KPMG’s report the wage of a handler in Montreal is $25,116 while in Cornwall it is $28,600 in New Jersey it $29,468. Warehousing and storage employment has nearly doubled over the past 10 years (Ibid). The sector relies on unstable flows of peak seasons, and times (Ibid). Then the focus on logistics, wholesale trade, e-commerce, as a vehicle for economic development has reinforced the growth of working poverty in Montreal. According to research by Xavier Leloup “Montreal’s economic situation at least in part relies on the availability of a flexible workforce, prepared to work for lower incomes (Laloup, 2016:31).” That the transition from a Fordist employment regimes and industries created a transition in the labor market in which favored as a result of weakening trade union density, the growth of temporary employment in the form of placement agency, and just-in-time work (Leloup, 2016). According to Laloup, those working and remaining in poverty during the years 2001 to 2012 increased by 30% (Ibid). Such conditions have been the core at the growth of logistics and transportation in Montreal under the auspices of economic revitalization.

These changes have contributed to the creation of a favorable business climate, and an increase of private investment capital into warehousing. Two recent examples have been the recent announcement that the real-estate arm of one of Canada’s biggest pension funds, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec plans to increase its assets by a third in investing $80 million over five years in industrial space (CDPQ, 2018). UPS has planned a $125-million, 180,000 sq. ft. expansion to the company’s Montreal hub (UPS, 2018). This had led to a run on purchases of land in the Dorval area as part of a wider speculation of the growth of Logistics. The expansion of these logistics companies and competition are also leading to further automation. UPS Dorval expansion will be fully automated, actually leading to unemployment. The motivation for job growth by the city through private investment which corporations seeks to maximize profit in the sector will create further pressures to automate and create unemployment in the future with the backing of state support.

However, the Plante administration does not seem to support this economic direction. Despite CargoM’s pushing for growth, Mayor Valérie Plante’s decision to abandon the creation of a Cité de la Logistique in Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve is certainly a setback for the industry. The Cité, which the former administration supported, would have housed transportation carriers, warehouses, and goods handlers on 10 million sq.ft. lot of land, a portion of which has been owned by CargoM member Ray-Mont Logistics since 2016.

It seems likely that CargoM, which can be seen as a kind of lobbying group for the transportation and logistics sector, will make renewed efforts in the future to expand the city’s role in the transportation and storage of goods, thereby increasing profits for owners. The fact that less than 2/3 of Montréal’s 10.3 million sq.ft. of warehouse space in transportation and logistics (about half of which is owned by CargoM members) was in use in 2014 means that capacity already exists. Expansion will require an increase in warehouse workers, making organizing for rights increasingly important.

In summary, we see a number of factors in play that shape warehouse work. First, is the expansion of logistics as a key area of economic growth. This sector requires large direct and indirect government subsidies, such as tax breaks and urban infrastructure-roads etc. to support it. In addition, it requires a large pool of low-wage labor for its profitability. Because of its expansion and need for low wage, flexible labor, warehouse work has become one of the sources of employment managed by placement agencies and consequently has attracted workers from the immigrant community, who have fewer options. The fight for justice and improved working conditions is urgent as the profits generated by this sector has been at the expense of many immigrant workers.

Workers’ Experience in Warehouses

The Immigrant Workers’ Centre conducted a survey of placement agency workers in warehouses in the Greater Montreal region. In total, 42 workers were surveyed. The results show an industry that increasingly disregards the well-being of its workforce, and places company profit above even the most basic workplace protections, and preys on the most vulnerable segments of the working class. The IWC has anonymized the data so as to prevent retaliation against participating workers.

Key Findings

Workers Description

• The large majority, 74 per cent, of agency workers are men.

• Plurality coming from African countries (38.2%)

• Largest single proportion (31%) are from Haiti

• The two largest groups (Nigerians and Haitians) are also the two most numerous groups arriving as refugee claimants in 2017 and 2018 in Quebec.

Job Characteristics

• 38.1% of surveyed workers have been employed in their workplaces by temp agencies for over a year. Nearly half have been there under a year.

• The large majority of workers (78.6%) work full time

• The most common hourly wage is 12 or more and less than 15 (56,2%)

• Almost 10 percent works under the minimum wage

• And approximately two thirds (65,7%) are receiving less than 15 dollars.

• The large majority works full time between 35 and 40 hours per week (almost 60%).

• A significant proportion (16,5%) that works more than full time.

• Two thirds said they work overtime sometimes.

• Two thirds said they would stay in their jobs if they would work directly for the client enterprise and not through an agency.

Labor Violations

• A significant proportion (12%) said they suffered wage theft

• Almost 60% of workers said they are paid less than a permanent worker doing the same job (A violation according the recent changes in the labor code)

• Almost 4 up to 10 workers do not receive paid vacation days

• Half of the workers said they don’t know or didn’t give an answer about the vacations days they receive.

• Just 12 percent said clearly, they receive 2 or 3 weeks of paid vacation days.

• More than a half (54.8%) of workers said they do not receive paid sick days

• Approximately 14% of workers received psychological harassment at work

• Most of the workers (55%) haven’t been laid-off but there is also a high proportion (33%) who didn’t provide an answer.

• Among those that said they were laid-off, more than the half (which is the 7% of the total) did not receive their 4% as part of compensation

• Nearly half of the workers were not paid the minimum three hours of work the labour standard stipules a worker must be paid when coming to workplaces and there is no work, compared to 12% who were paid.

Health and Safety at Work

• 4 in ten workers said they didn’t receive health and safety training at their workplaces, compared to 45% who had.

• An equal proportion of workers (42.9% each) said they did and did not receive proper safety equipment at work.

• Almost one quarter of the workers said they were injured at work.

• 42.9% of the workers said they feel their workplace is not safe.

In the process of conducting the above-mentioned survey, the Immigrant Workers’ Centre also conducted a series of recorded discussions between surveyed workers regarding their job conditions. The anecdotes provided by workers compliment the quantitative findings of the survey.

Workers described a job environment where they were constantly pressured to move faster by managers—yet received only congratulations, and not compensation, for increased productivity. That increased productivity, constantly pushed by floor managers, came at the cost of safety.

In Dollarama’s warehouse, workers described occasions where the push for productivity led to an unsafe amount of people on the floor. “it is risky, yeah, because…you know there is too many, too many peoples, sometimes,” a worker said. “They need more, more peoples to work there.” In this push to move as quickly as possible, workers are given tasks that are risky and beyond their training level. “Some people are unsafe, some people work good, but with people that are unsafe and do not work good, that is dangerous for work environment”. Workers regularly complained that their warnings about safety, including to safety coordinators, went unheeded.

“I see some accidents. Some person took the pallet and it fell in the back,” said one worker. “He goes after to the hospital.” Accidents involving falling boxes were a regular feature of working in warehouses, and workers told that their supervisors didn’t seem to take the issue seriously. After an accident, “they don’t call,” one worker said. “They wait if you are ok. It is like a joke. They don’t help me for nothing.” Workers sometimes don’t even declare their injuries.

Workers describe particularly heavy boxes being placed in high places, and being expected to remove them manually—often leading to workplace injuries. Some workers have even brought the issue to the attention of supervisors, in an attempt to encourage heavy boxes to be placed lower toward the ground, with no results. Boxes are strewn in the middle of alleyways, leaving little room to walk, and creating risk of injury.

What’s more, only half of surveyed workers were provided with the proper equipment required to safely perform their tasks. Workers are often told that they must buy the proper boots with their own money, before they can start work. The same principle applies to masks, which shield workers from inhaling the omnipresent dust in the warehouses, which some workers say have made them sick.

“If you don’t have money to pay, you cannot work,” explained one worker. Companies justify this policy, according to workers, using the so-called flexibility inherent in placement agency work. “Maybe in one month you go to another place,” the worker explained. In this way, the lack of job security creates additional barriers to entry for workers in situations of economic precarity.

“If you [criticize the policy], they are not giving you call,” the worker said.

When it comes time to collect their paycheck, other problems abound for the surveyed workers. Some describe having been only paid normal wages for working holidays, and agency workers generally believed that they were being paid less than their company-hired counterparts, even when performing the same tasks at work. Workers claimed that companies would refuse to direct deposit paychecks, and force workers to come into the office, sometimes far away from home, to pick up their pay on days they did not work. Others described “mistakes” made by placement agencies, where workers were not paid for their time off after an accident until the worker pointed out the issue.

Workers have essentially no control over their own schedules, a side-effect of the model of “labor flexibility” promoted by placement agencies. Sometimes, particularly in the month of December, this means that there won’t be work available for long periods of time due to store shelves being overstocked for the holidays. Workers are expected to show up on call and do the work necessary.

As immigrants, the surveyed workers discussed being pushed into placement agency work due to hiring discrimination in other companies.

The immigration bureaucracy also encourages workers to take on more precarious work, for fear of having their application for permanent residency rejected. “I need to move, because if I don’t move the [immigration] procedure for my family cannot process,” one worker said. Companies, they said, will often fire workers just before the three-month probation period ends. When working at an agency, they can expect to work all year, despite having lower pay and less protections in the workplace. This puts financial strain on immigrants who are often also in situations where family members in their countries of origin rely on remittances in order to survive.

Organizing Precedents

What are the possibilities for improving the situations facing workers in warehouses? The obvious answer is to form unions and bargain with their bosses for better conditions, using the possibilities of a strike to force concessions. In an industry based on fast turnover, strikes and disruption can have a huge impact. However, because workers are employed through placement agencies, it is almost impossible to organize a union under current laws that regulate the process. What are the options for workers in warehouses to improve their working conditions and have some collective power?

Warehouse workers have organized and set up associations to give them a strong voice and to challenge their bosses. Warehouse workers in many different cities across the world are making significant changes. These workers like warehouse workers in Montreal, face conditions such as low-pay, are hired through temporary placement agencies, and have grueling pace. Such work conditions have led workers to find new ways to organize. In Amazon warehouses, ”the pace of work is inhumane,” said Mohamed Hassan, one of the workers who recently went on strike. “Everyone feels continuously threatened by the system.” Despite the control, fear, and losing their jobs, workers in Amazon’s warehouse or “fulfilment center” in Shakopee, Minneapolis have been organizing for the past three years with the support a workers’ center called the Awood East African Workers Centre—a partnership between the Service Employees International Union and the Council of American-Islamic Relations. The Awood center organized with Somali workers to improve conditions in the Amazon warehouse which employs 1,500 people. They demanded fair treatment, the right to reduced work speed during Ramadan, and improved wages. Holding socials, leafleting, and organizing meetings eventually led to a 6-hour strike by some of the workers. In fact, Amazon had to recognize the organizing taking place and has met some of the demands of the workers over issues of the pace of work, and health and safety issues.

In 2012 in Chicago, Illinois, 38 Wal-Mart warehouse workers went on strike for two weeks over health and safety issues, working conditions, and dignity. These workers were employed through a temp agency. Regardless, these workers organized in their warehouse—supported by the Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ), a United Electrical Workers union (UE) affiliate—organized a wildcat strike with the support of teacher unions, faith groups, immigrant organizations. A march of several hundred people shut down Walmart’s supply chain for the day. This has been one of many campaigns supported by the Warehouse Workers for Justice, an organization which organizes warehouse and distribution workers, who are mainly temp workers, in the Chicago area.

It is clear that workers in the fastest growing part of the economy, regardless if they are in Montreal, Chicago, or Poland, face the same employers and strategies to push down the wages in their warehouse and to keep the products moving. But alongside community organizations, such as workers centers and trade unions, workers have shown if they organize they can take on even the most powerful and largest corporations. The challenges to organizing traditional unions has not stopped unions, and workers from finding new ways to organize. In Montreal, the same is possible.

In Montreal, ATTAP plays that role. It brings together placement agency workers to defend their labor rights and to campaign for reforms to improve their labor conditions. ATTAP uses several strategies to protect worker rights.

ATTAP uses existing labor and health and safety laws and regulations as tools to defend workers and to make sure that even these limited standards are applied. Issues such as pay, health and safety conditions, proper training and equipment are covered by these laws and regulations. ATTAP informs workers of their rights and accompanies them in defending these rights. ATTAP has played a leadership role in expanding these rights. In 2018, the former Liberal government passed legislation (Bill 176) incorporating, for the first time, recognized the issues faced by agency workers into the basic labor standards. The following are the reforms that improves the conditions of placement agency workers. First, placement agency workers are entitled to equal pay for the same work, so that they are not hired as lower wage workers. Second, on issues related to pay, both the placement agency and the company where the work is done are jointly responsible. This change will mean that it will be easier for workers to contest pay violations. Third, placement agencies have to registered with CNESST. This process will make agency more publicly accountable and violations of labor and health and safety standards can lead to an agency losing it licence to exploit workers.

These reforms were a small first step, in large part the recognition of the ATTAP’s ongoing presence and the courage of its leaders. These regulations have not been adopted (September 2019). These new laws and regulations have to be used and provide new tools to contest workplace conditions of placement agency workers. ATTAP sees these reforms as limited but provide an opportunity for organizing and contestation.

Collective Agreement Decrees in Québec

What other strategies are available to build collective power for workers in warehouses? As mentioned before, for the workplaces where most workers are employed through placement agency, unionization is practically impossible because of the complex triangular labor relationship. In this situation, recurring to legal arrangements, such as labor standards act and health and safety act, is the only available base to set their working conditions. Given these circumstances, a decree, which means a sector based collective agreement, can be an option to be considered in order to improve their conditions.

A decree is ordered either by the Ministère du Travail, de l’Emploi et de la Solidarité sociale or by the Québec Government. Any party to an agreement may apply to the Government to pass a decree [art. 3]. The decree application must, at first glance, meet certain criteria: it must be appropriate given the nature of the work, products, and services; the characteristics of the market covered by the application; and the scope of the order. The provisions of the agreement whose extension is requested must be important and significant in establishing work conditions. Further, extending the terms of the agreement must not be a “serious inconvenience” to companies competing with those outside of Québec. It is unclear what a “serious inconvenience” might entail.

Most decrees in Québec came into force in the 1960s, before comprehensive employment standards legislation came into play. At that time, there were over 100 decrees in Québec. It seems that, rather than a way to usurp the role of unions, decrees were created in the absence of employment standards legislation and minimum work conditions. In the early 20th century, unions were largely in favor of decrees that created industry-wide standards, but this has changed since World War II. Interventions that established minimum standards in regards to wages, statutory holidays, vacations, reasonable notice, and wrongful dismissal challenged the relevance of decrees by offering an alternative basis for protection. Workers were no longer exclusively reliant on collective action to secure minimum rights and benefits. A preference for decentralized, enterprise-level bargaining gradually emerged.

Today, there are only around fifteen decrees in force, most of which regulate small to medium-sized companies in the service sector with few employees.

In theory, a decree could be used to protect warehouse workers in Québec. The geographical jurisdiction would be Québec and the professional jurisdiction would be employees working in warehouses. Again, the Ministry will consider whether the proposed decree is appropriate given the nature of the work, the characteristics of the market, and the scope of the order.

It is necessary to find a solid collective agreement on which to base the decree. This must be a collective agreement that currently protects some warehouse workers under a specific employer. The provisions of the agreement must be important and significant in establishing work conditions; this means that the collective agreement that we hope to extend must play an important role, beyond applicable labor standards legislation, in protecting workers.

In effect, adopting decree needs a further discussion and efforts. Since most decrees emerged from strong research indicating the harms of the industry, as well as broad public support, it seems that community and worker mobilization will be important. And of course, a consensus between the existing unions in the sector is essential.

Conclusion

The goals of these strategies, besides improving workplace conditions is to build power through organizing workers. The goal is to build a strong collective voice to defend rights in the workplace and to push for reforms. ATTAP is built through strong and informed worker leaders, who can mobilize and educate other workers. Building a collective voice for agency workers is the ongoing goals.

This piece was prepared by the Immigrant Workers Centre of Montreal, it’s leaders and staff. Central to this task were Eric Stragg, a former professor at Concordia University in Montreal, and Mostafa Henaway, Lead Organizer.

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