It’s back to business as usual at Amazon’s Brampton warehouse after a two-week shutdown over coronavirus concerns, yet workers continue to be cast aside by the online retail giant.
Since the start of the pandemic, more than one in ten workers—or close to 600 people—have contracted COVID-19 at the warehouse. This is the largest number of outbreak-associated cases of any employer in the region.
The spread of the virus from the facility to the local community has been especially devastating. Recently, a long-time driver for Brampton Transit died of COVID-19. Sources claim the driver worked on the route that regularly picked up passengers from the Amazon warehouse. Yet, even after shutting down part of the bus route that served the facility, this has not been confirmed by Peel Public Health, Brampton Transit, or the City.
Peel Region’s public health unit ordered the company to close all shifts on March 12 after concerns that high-risk exposure to COVID-19 within its facility was “increasing significantly,” even as community cases dropped. All shifts at the 8050 Heritage Road site were suspended and approximately 5,000 employees were told to self-isolate through March 27, unless they had tested positive in the preceding 90 days and completed a mandatory isolation period.
Despite media reports claiming Ontario Ministry of Labour officials visited the workplace on 12 occasions over the past year, no memos detailing any violations of pandemic rules were published. Nine orders on safety protocols were previously issued, data shows.
The latest inspection occurred on March 10, two days before the public health shutdown. Peel Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Lawrence Loh said 240 confirmed cases had been reported, with several being a more contagious variant of COVID-19.
Loh urged Amazon to review its operations to ensure staff are “cohorted by day, time and area of work and type of work” and that “capacity limits for areas, such as washrooms, entrances and lunchrooms are enforced to allow two metres of physical distancing.”
He also ordered the company to ensure signs about COVID-19 safety protocols are posted in the languages spoken by its staff, a vital measure given that Amazon profits off a super-exploited immigrant workforce. Loh added that the company should explore “transportation options for staff for safe commuting.”
Amazon argued that the data does not warrant a shutdown, pointing to the recent round of tests in the facility showing an infection rate of less than one percent. The company also said it intended to appeal the decision by Peel Public Health, adding that the facility closure may have some short-term impact on its Canadian customers.
At the time of writing, the Health Services Appeal and Review Board says it has not yet received an appeal of the order.
Meanwhile, Amazon says workers will be paid for the self-isolation period but it is not clear whether they will be compensated by the company itself or through the federal Sickness Recovery Benefit.
Failure to comply includes a maximum fine of $5,000 for individuals and $25,000 for the company every day the offense is found, under the Section 22 order.
Neglecting precautions, maximizing profit
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic Amazon has continued to operate most of its warehouses and other facilities despite the emergence of severe outbreaks.
The company has previously said new hires are being trained to follow strict health and safety rules. In an October press release, Amazon said it poured more than $800 million into “COVID-19 safety measures” in the first six months of 2020.
The company has invested in artificial intelligence and robotics to automate its warehousing and distribution network, but it still relies on hundreds of thousands of workers to pull orders, make deliveries, and keep its distribution network running.
While workers in Amazon’s fulfilment centres occupy essential roles that cannot be performed efficiently by machines, this has not stopped management from treating workers like robots.
Several workers have noted being closely monitored and “coached” to maintain high performance quotas. According to a recent report by Press Progress, competition with other booming retail outlets like Walmart and e-commerce newcomers like Hudson’s Bay (which announced the launch of a premium online shopping marketplace last month) has increased “performance expectations” and made it even more difficult for warehouse workers to follow safety protocols.
Behind the turnstiles, thermal cameras and other surveillance measures, Amazon’s fulfilment of online transactions comes at the expense of workplace health and safety. “Mismanagement of COVID-19 measures,” remarked one employee in an interview with Narcity, has been making employees feel “unsafe while at work.”
Meanwhile, Amazon’s footprint is ever-growing. In the Greater Toronto area, the company opened its new YYZ9 fulfilment centre in Scarborough. Five other fulfilment centres are already operational: YYZ1 in Mississauga, YYZ2 in Milton, YYZ3 and YYZ4 in Brampton, and YYZ7 in Bolton. The company also announced plans to open two more warehouses in Hamilton and Ajax.
Last year, a number of workers tested positive for COVID-19 at the YYZ7 facility. Amazon refused to delay operations for any length of time in order to fully sanitize the premises and did not send any workers home with pay who were in contact with the positive case. The company has exhibited this behaviour in the past when workers contracted COVID-19 at its Carlsbad Springs centre in Ottawa—the largest industrial building in the region.
Workers’ compensation legislation in Canada provides workers with medical benefits and partial income replacement if they are injured or contract a disease at work. Ontario employers are required to report cases of COVID-19 to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, which assesses work-relatedness and benefit entitlement based on the specific and unique circumstances.
“We are closely monitoring to ensure that any work-related COVID-19 claims for Amazon are appropriately registered so people can get the benefits to which they are entitled,” Christine Arnott, a spokesperson for the WSIB, said in a statement. “If someone believes their employer has failed to report their workplace injury or illness, or has discouraged them from filing a WSIB claim, they can contact us confidentially.”
As Amazon’s promise of quick-ship service has become ubiquitous, so too have reports of unsafe working conditions inside the company’s fulfilment centres.
A Toronto Star investigation found Amazon has a history of challenging and undermining workers’ injury claims at the compensation board. Of the 303 injury claims covering the period between February 2018 and January 2019, the company faulted the injured worker or argued “no proof of accident,” an “unclear mechanism of injury” or a “pre-existing condition.”
More than one year into a pandemic during which Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ personal wealth topped $70 billion, the local public health agency told the company to adopt elementary precautions that should have been enforced when news of the virus broke.
Despite “pulling the emergency brake” for the entire province the ruling elite has shown a regrettable tendency to keep big business up and running, all while ignoring underlying and unaddressed issues of worker protection and labour abuse.
Ysh Cabana is a writer and community organizer living in Toronto. He is also a member of BAYAN-Canada, alliance of progressive Filipino groups.