Undercover: Working and Dying as a Temporary Employee

temporary employeeOK, stick the kids in front of the TV, send your spouse out with friends and sit down for a little while to read this amazing article by Toronto Star Reporters Sara Mojtehedzadeh and Brendan Kennedy.  Mojtehedzadeh went to work undercover as a temporary employee at Fiera Foods, an industrial bakery in Toronto where a worker had died, to learn first-hand about working conditions at he factory.

Much has been written lately about the fragmentation (or “fissuring“) of the workplace, where more and more workers are officially employed by temporary agencies, not by the companies they actually work at.  Data in the US and other countries has found these jobs are growing rapidly, and expanding into dangerous occupations. And that temp workers suffer higher numbers of workplace injuries and deaths than permanent workers.

OSHA, during the Obama administration, launched a campaign on Protecting Temporary Workers and issued Recommended Practices and numerous alerts after becoming aware of numerous preventable deaths and disabling injuries of temporary workers, some on their first day of the job.  One temporary worker, Day Davis, was crushed to death at a Bacardi Bottling factory in Jacksonville, Florida in 2013, 90 minutes into his first day on the job. He had been told to clean under a pallatizer, and was crushed to death when someone turned it on when he was underneath. He had received no safety training.  His story was highlighted in a ProPublica article and a movie, A Day’s Work.

I’ll take a few minutes to summarize some of the main points, but please read the article, watch the videos and listen to some of the phone conversations that Mojtehedzadeh had with the company and its representatives.

Safety is a “core principle” — Temps as Second Class Citizens

Fiera foods caught Mojtehedzadeh’s attention because of the death of 23-year-old Amina Diaby, who was killed last year in an incident at the factory when her hijab was caught in a machine, strangling her. She had been on the job for two weeks and was trying to save money for nursing school. Safety at these factories is an ongoing problem. (Update: Fiera Foods just plead guilty to Diaby’s death.)

One “advantage” to hiring temp employees is that the host company can dump some (or all) of the safety responsibility on the temp agency.  As Mojtehedzadeh explains, “When a temp gets hurt, the company is not fully responsible because the temp agency assumes liability at the worker’s compensation board — saving their clients money on insurance premiums. This is a crucial financial incentive to use them.”


“Fiera said health and safety is a ‘core principle,’ the company told the Star,” and the initial company email says that worker safety is the bakery’s “highest concern. But it wasn’t. They promised safety training and regular safety meeting, in addition to “hands-on instruction for workers, weekly meetings with supervisors about health and safety, bulletin boards with information about safety policies.” In reality, she only received five minutes of training in a factory packed with industrial equipment.

And then there was this amusing exchange when the company was asked about the lack of safety training:

Responding to a series of follow-up questions from the Star, David Gelbloom — who in addition to his role as administrator of Upper Crust, is Fiera’s general counsel and HR manager — says my supervisor provided a health and safety orientation and told me the location of the fire exits.

“He remembers you specifically,” Gelbloom said. “He tells us that at no time did he sense you did not understand what you were being told … nor did you indicate to him that you were having any difficulty understanding his instructions or that you were dissatisfied with your orientation.”

In fact, I was trained by a woman.

Many workers were allowed to wear hijabs and other loose clothing, even though they were told not to. They were “required” to buy safety shoes, but safety shoes are expensive and some workers didn’t buy them, with no protest by managers. No one told her where the fire extinguishers or exits were and the only “hand’s on instruction” was to keep her hands out of the machinery.  And “the emergency stop button cannot be reached without climbing under another conveyor belt.”

Just to add insult to injury, they had to ask permission to use the bathroom, “where the back of the toilet is covered by a black crust.”

A Dangerous Industry

The Star looked into how widespread safety problems were in the industry, especially an industry whose workers are increasingly doing more dangerous, blue collar work:

While temp agencies are traditionally associated with casual office work, statistics from the WSIB show the majority of temps are now being placed in other sectors — including non-clerical, construction, restaurant and driving jobs.

The Star also asked the WSIB (Workplace Safety and Insurance Board) for injury data filed by non-clerical temp agencies — those operating in sectors like manufacturing, warehousing, and health care — and comparable workplaces. The statistics showed non-clerical temps were more than twice as likely to get hurt on the job in 2016 as non-temp counterparts.

In fact, the injury rate for temps in non-clerical workplaces has consistently been close to double that of other comparable sectors for the past 10 years. However, since 2010, temp agency workers spent fewer days off work as a result of their injuries, according to the compensation board’s figures.

What if you’re injured on the job?

And then there are workers comp problems

Even when they get hurt, many temp workers don’t file compensation claims because they are afraid of losing their job.

“(Temp agency workers) can easily be told, following an injury, that ‘you’re not covered by workers’ comp’ or ‘we have no more work for you,’” says Ellen MacEachen, a professor at the University of Waterloo and affiliate of the Toronto-based Institute for Work & Health.

Claims suppression was identified as an issue across all sectors in a 2013 study for the WSIB. It found that of 100 enforcement files analyzed, 48 contained indications of employers directly trying to block or dissuade workers from filing an injury claim.

MacEachen says the problem is particularly acute for temps, who can be let go for no reason.

“Even if they are aware of their rights, they won’t risk their work by speaking up.”

Rewarding Bad Behavior

The fact is that despite “safety being a core value,” Fiera is a dangerous place to work. In addition to Diaby, two other temp agency workers have died at Fiera or its affiliated companies.

In 1999, a 17-year old temp named Ivan Golyashov was killed at Fiera’s Norelco Dr. plant when a dough mixer was activated while he was inside cleaning it. In 2011, 69-year-old Aydin Kazimov was crushed by a transport truck outside Marmora Freezing Corp. Fiera Foods and Marmora were convicted in each case under the Occupational Health and Safety Act and fined $150,000 on each occasion.

Safety and health authorities have noticed: “Fiera has been slapped with 191 orders for health and safety violations over the past two decades, for everything from lack of proper guarding on machines to unsafely stored gas cylinders.”

None of this has stopped the company from profiting on government largess:

In 2013, Fiera received a $3.2 million federal business loan. The following year, Fiera was awarded a $1.5 million grant from the provincial Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs to expand capacity. At the time, the company was lauded by Premier Kathleen Wynne for providing “good jobs” to Torontonians.

Conclusion

OK, I’m stopping here. Enough doing your work for you.  Go read the article yourself. There’s plenty more there about lack of sick leave, sub-poverty level wages, having to travel a half hour to pick up their pay checks, etc., etc.

This story is from Canada, but we’re seeing the same thing here in the good old US of A.  This is a manifestation of the “Fissured Workplace,” a phenomenon that former Obama Wage and Hour Administrator David Weil has written extensively about, where companies at the top contract out  major downstream parts of the business. (For more information, get a copy of The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It.)  For some temp agencies, like the one that employed Mojtehedzadeh, their “office” may just be a post-box and their only “asset” may be a cell phone.

OSHA under the Obama administration attempted to make clear to temp agencies and host companies that, depending on the individual circumstances of a case, they may both have responsibility for ensuring the safety and health of their employees. And a host company (like Fiera, for example) cannot just shove all of the responsibility onto the staffing agency.  OSHA began enforcement actions against both the host company and the temp agency. For example, after the death of Regina Allen Elsea, OSHA issued citations against staffing agencies Alliance Total Solutions and Joynus Staffing Corp, as well as against Ajin USA, which supplied auto parts for Kia and Hyundai.  

Also note that OSHA issued press releases in these cases to ensure that temp agencies and host employers across the country got the message that both are responsible for the safety of their workers.

Republicans in charge in Congress and the White House have been fighting the concept of joint employment. Although mostly focused on Obama era actions by the National Labor Relations Board and the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor, it remains to be seen whether Trump’s OSHA willgo after temp agencies and host employers who endanger workers as aggressively as the Obama administration did.

 

Fissured Workplace Temporary Employees

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