Temp workers, the unsung pandemic heroes who make and deliver our goods, should not be losing sleep — or their lives — over $14 an hour
Temporary agency workers are called to work on a daily basis as determined by the employer’s need and their assessed performance. Typically employed in sectors such as manufacturing, food processing, distribution and farming, they often work without contracts, health benefits, vacation or sick leave. If they do manage to secure work, they’re paid minimum wage; if they decline work, they lose their paycheque, and possibly future work opportunities. They are underpaid compared to permanent employees and often do not qualify for overtime pay.
The 2018 Labour Force Survey found that 2.1 million people were working temporary jobs across Canada, up from 1.4 million in 1998. A 2017 Toronto Star investigation into the workplace death of an agency worker reported an alarming 20 per-cent increase in the number of temporary agencies in Ontario alone, and highlighted the persistent inequities and exploitation faced by these workers.
This is borne out in research that identifies higher risk of occupational injury and illness amongst temporary workers. A study from the Institute for Work & Health in Toronto found that workers in temporary jobs experienced higher hazard exposure and inadequate access to policies and procedures in the workplace. Temporary workers also had lower awareness of rights and responsibilities, and felt less empowered to participate in health and safety prevention.
Economic uncertainty during the pandemic has led to greater reliance on temporary agencies by businesses, creating opportunities for further exploitation of workers already struggling against minimum wage and precarious context. The picture in the Peel region is a notable example of such socioeconomic disparity.
Throughout Peel Public Health outbreak investigations, status as an agency worker is being explored as a key factor that discourages testing and compliance with self-isolation protocols when sick or exposed to COVID-19, which can lead to workplace outbreaks. Some employers have not been providing the appropriate support to allow these workers to take COVID-19 precautions, which leads to transmission and exposures. When this occurs, too many agency workers then face the impossible choice of self-isolating, or continuing to take on work to remain in agencies’ good graces and keep a roof over their heads.
These findings are one of the reasons that prompted Peel Public Health to undertake workplace blitzes with the Ministry of Labour, Training, and Skills Development partners and also issue a Section 22 order that requires employers with outbreaks to take steps to keep their employees safe by allowing them to stay home when sick and complying with workplace safety guidelines.
During the pandemic, temporary agency workers have often been assigned to different high-risk industrial workplaces, which has on occasion contributed to workplace outbreaks. In addition to proper precautions, screening, and training, migration of workers must be discouraged to reduce opportunities for spread and impacts to contact tracing. Ultimately, providing workers with secure employment opportunities and giving them the same basic rights and protection as their permanent colleagues would solve these problems. Doing so would also address the ineligibility of agency workers for supports such as Employment Insurance (EI) and the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), among other government benefits, that will relieve the financial stressors that such workers disproportionately continue to experience during the pandemic and will face into recovery.
To stop the spread of COVID-19 and protect worker health into a post-pandemic future, concrete actions must be taken to end the persistent exploitation of this workforce. Controlling COVID-19 and ultimately reopening the economy will depend on how well we are able to provide such workers with the same protections that we all enjoy.
A motion passed by Peel Regional Council on December 10, 2020 called on federal and provincial governments to implement and fund necessary policies and programs to provide paid sick day benefits and job protection. This represents another milestone in this important conversation to ensure that safe working conditions protect everyone in the midst of this crisis. It is critical to ensure agency workers are provided with fundamental employment protections that are often taken for granted by everyone else. Such protections would also empower agency and other precariously employed workers to self-isolate, get tested when sick, and speak up if precautions aren’t being taken at their workplace.
These unsung pandemic heroes should not be losing sleep — or their lives — over $14 an hour.