News / Toronto

I went undercover in a Toronto factory where temp workers have died. Here's what I found

Amina Diaby, 23, died last year in an accident inside one of the GTA’s largest industrial bakeries where, the company says, worker safety is its highest concern. The Star’s Sara Mojtehedzadeh went undercover for a month at the factory where Diaby worked.

During her undercover stint at Fiera Foods Sara Mojtehedzadeh worked on the croissant production line. She describes the pace of the work as crushing.

Sara Mojtehedzadeh

During her undercover stint at Fiera Foods Sara Mojtehedzadeh worked on the croissant production line. She describes the pace of the work as crushing.

There are two dozen of us crowded around a conveyor belt, bodies twisting to snatch dough off the line. The floor is strewn with raw pastries that seem to accumulate faster than anyone can sweep them up. They collect in bloated masses at our feet.

It is my first day as a temp at Fiera Foods, an industrial bakery that reeks of yeast and is alive with the constant drone of machinery.

We are forming and packing raw, circular pastry dough into wet plastic trays — a shoulder-crunching task called pinching. These may well be the croissants you eat for breakfast.

Supervisors shout at us to wake up. They shout at us to move faster, pinch nicer, work harder. No one talks through the noise and exhaustion.

The factory relies heavily on temporary help agency workers. Its health and safety record is checkered; three temps have died here or at Fiera’s affiliated companies since 1999.

Across the province, more and more people are relying on temp agencies to find work. When they do, statistics show they are more likely to get hurt on the job.

I am undercover to investigate why.

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Fiera’s current clients include some of the continent’s biggest brands including Dunkin’ Donuts and Sobeys; over the years it has made pastries for Costco, Tim Hortons, Metro, Walmart, and Loblaw. Its factories churn out baked goods by the truckload, destined for markets across North America and around the world. They can produce 2 million bagels alone per day.

Fiera said health and safety is a “core principle,” in response to questions from the Star. It said it contributes to Ontario’s “economic well-being” with more than 1,200 people working at its facilities in the GTA, and that it believes strongly in helping immigrants “find work and build their futures in Canada.” It also said it uses strict criteria when choosing temp agencies to work with. The company says it has given almost $1.5 million to health-care initiatives and minority communities over the past decade.

It has also received some $4.7 million in government loans and grants to expand capacity and create good jobs. The company says all employees are given “in-depth training” and that Fiera has invested half a million dollars in health and safety initiatives over the past two years.

I get about five minutes of training in a factory packed with industrial equipment.

I am paid in cash with no deductions or pay stubs. I pick up my wages from a payday lender, a 35-minute bus ride from the factory.

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.

At least a dozen of the women I meet on my assembly line at Fiera, a multimillion-dollar company, are hired through temp agencies.

Temp agency workers are changing the face of labour in Ontario.

In workplaces around the province, the use of temp agencies limits companies’ liability for accidents on the job, reduces their responsibility for employees’ rights, and cuts costs.

When I walk into the factory, I see mostly people of colour. Many are new Canadians. Many told me they have taken this job for one reason: to survive.

In August, charges were laid against Fiera Foods under the Occupational Health and Safety Act for the 2016 death of a temp agency worker named Amina Diaby. Her hijab was caught in a machine, strangling her.

She was 23 years old. She was a refugee trying to save for nursing school. She had been on the job two weeks.

Amina Diaby had been working at Fiera Foods for just two weeks when she was killed on the job.

Family photo

Amina Diaby had been working at Fiera Foods for just two weeks when she was killed on the job.

The hiring

Fiera Foods’ Marmora St. factory in North York sits beside a highway and behind a Bingo hall, a sprawling presence on a small cul-de-sac dotted with storefront churches and auto-repair shops.

A white placard adorns the factory’s main entrance. It directs workers with “temporary employment” inquiries inside.

Fiera Foods is a private company founded by Boris Serebryany and Alex Garber in 1987, after the two men emigrated from the former Soviet Union. Fiera has another factory on Norelco Dr., about 15 minutes away from the Marmora St. plant. Boris and Alex are also the administrators of Tristar Bakers and Bakery Deluxe Co., located on Norfinch Dr.

Adjacent to Fiera’s Marmora St. plant is Marmora Freezing Corp., whose administrators are Anna Garber and Boris’s daughter Carmela Serebryany-Harris. Carmela is also one of the administrators of CMS Ontario, along with Susin Svetlana Garber. David Gelbloom is the administrator of Upper Crust.

Fiera describes these five companies as its “alliance partners.”

The company markets its “innovation, quality, and cost containment,” according to its website. It maintains the highest possible rating with the British Retail Consortium’s food safety certification program and has enjoyed a “double-digit growth rate for 18 consecutive years.”

Serebryany and Garber declined to be interview for this story, but in a written response to questions from the Star, Fiera said its “diversity would not be possible without our ongoing relationships with temporary help agencies,” which provide workers with food safety and chemical safety training, according to the company. Temp agencies also help Fiera meet fluctuating demand, it said.

Fiera is far from alone in its reliance on agencies. Over the past decade, the number of temp agency offices opening across Ontario has increased by 20 per cent, with some 1,700 operating in the GTA alone, statistics obtained by the Star show.

Agencies make their money by placing workers at companies at an agreed-upon rate, billing the client for temps’ wages, plus a markup for themselves. Proponents say temp agencies help businesses stay competitive by providing them with a “flexible” workforce, while also creating job opportunities for people who may not otherwise get them.

Temp agency employees are some of the most “vulnerable and precariously employed of all workers,” a 420-page report recently compiled by two independent experts for the Ontario government says.

Temps can be terminated at a moment’s notice, the report notes. Companies who use them are liable along with their temp agency for unpaid wages, including overtime and vacation pay, but not for most other workplace rights. Temps are often paid less than permanent counterparts doing the same job, and sometimes work for long periods of time in supposedly “temporary” positions. Agencies are not required to disclose the markups they charge on workers’ wages. New provincial legislation, which goes to second reading this month, seeks to tackle some of those issues.

Research conducted for the Toronto-based Institute for Work and Health also suggests that companies contract out risky work to temps. 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 Foods was founded by Boris Serebryany and Alex Garber in 1987.

fierafoods.com

Fiera Foods was founded by Boris Serebryany and Alex Garber in 1987.

When I approached a security guard at Fiera asking about shifts, he tells me the plant doesn’t hire directly. He scribbles down the number for a temporary help agency called Magnus Services.

I can’t apply as a journalist who has written extensively about temp agencies, so I give Magnus my grandmother’s last name and put myself on a waitlist for work. The agency asks me if I have safety shoes and about my immigration status. They do not ask if I have any experience working in a factory around machinery.

For two weeks, I hear nothing. Then, on a Monday afternoon, the agency calls: there is work available the next day. The pay is $11.50 an hour, cash, 10 cents above minimum wage. I am told to bring safety shoes, and instructed not to wear a hijab or jewelry.

I receive an email that includes a map to the factory and a one-page generic summary of “Good Manufacturing Practices” such as washing your hands and alerting your supervisor if you see any insects or rodents. All I need to do is reply with a copy of photo ID and a social insurance number.

I will never meet anyone from the temp agency in person.

As I will find out later, their offices do not even exist.

First day

I squeeze onto a bench with other new temps in Fiera’s crowded break room. It’s 2 p.m., and we will be here until 10:30 p.m. At the front of the room, a clock says THINK SAFETY in red letters across its dial.

Worker safety is the bakery’s “highest concern,” according to an initial email from company spokesperson Ziggy Romick. This includes hands-on instruction for workers, weekly meetings with supervisors about health and safety, bulletin boards with information about safety policies and the factory’s Joint Health and Safety Committee, and annual fire drills.

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.

A white placard adorns Fiera Foods’ main entrance, directing workers with “temporary employment” inquiries inside.

Randy Risling/ Torstar News Services

A white placard adorns Fiera Foods’ main entrance, directing workers with “temporary employment” inquiries inside.

She gives me a lab coat and hairnet, which is fastidiously monitored throughout my time at the plant. She asks if I have safety shoes on and rattles off a list of instructions, telling me not to wear nail polish, fake nails or fake eyelashes.

She tells me I have the right to refuse unsafe work. If nothing I feel is safe is available, she says I can go home and wait for the temp agency to call again. (According to the Ministry of Labour, employees who refuse unsafe work are supposed to stay close to the worksite until the issue is resolved or an inspector arrives. It is illegal to suspend or dismiss someone for a work refusal.)

No one tells me where fire extinguishers or exits are. Another temp confides she didn’t buy safety shoes, which cost the equivalent of a day’s wages. She makes it through the screening anyway.

There is no hands-on instruction. I am shown a diagram of a machine and told not to put my hand in moving parts.

From start to finish, the process takes about five minutes.

The pace on the production line is crushing. Men feed dough into machines running alongside us, which spit out partially-formed pastries. Half of the women on the line pinch the ends together to form circles. The rest of us scoop up as many clumps of dough as we can between our fingers, packing them as quickly as possible into plastic trays. We need to ensure they are placed the right way, or they deform in the oven and are wasted.

Work that is too slow elicits shouting. Work that is too sloppy elicits more shouting. Our lead hand fires out a salvo of shrill commands to push the tempo.

The pinching continues for seven hours and 15 minutes. We receive one half-hour lunch break, as required by law. It is unpaid. We also receive a paid 15-minute break.

I feel overwhelming relief when it’s finally my turn for lunch. My shoulders are on fire. I shuffle to the break room and look eagerly at the THINK SAFETY clock. Only three hours have passed. A co-worker watches me collapse onto a bench.

“It gets harder,” she calls out.

The flimsy, plastic trays chafe our hands raw. We need to ask permission to use the bathroom, where the back of the toilet is covered by a black crust. We do not wear gloves or face masks, which Fiera says are not mandatory.

Gelbloom says workers wash their hands before entering production areas and that employees are relied upon to “help us maintain our high standards.”

“Food safety is paramount at Fiera Foods, and Fiera adheres to stringent food safety policies,” he said.

A woman on the line deftly fixes my clumsy mistakes; I keep packing pastries wrong side up. She has been at the factory several months, also through a temp agency.

“Do you like it here?” I ask her.

“Nobody likes this job,” she says in hesitant English. “But the money.”

Over the course of my month at the plant, I earn $1,552 – which falls below Ontario’s poverty line for a single adult. (The Star donated its earnings to North York Harvest Food Bank.)

Looking at the temp industry as a whole, agency workers are at greater risk of injury and are more likely to be exposed to dangerous working conditions than permanent employees, according to research from the United States, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries.

Statistics Canada stopped collecting data on temp agency workers a decade ago, making it difficult to paint a picture of the workforce here. To fill that gap, the Star filed multiple Freedom of Information requests with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board and obtained custom data from the Association of Workers Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC).

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 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.

The AWCBC data showed that while temp agencies operating in non-clerical sectors and construction represent less than 2 per cent of the workforce, they ranked in the top 10 for absolute highest number of reported injuries over the past decade. That’s compared to more than a thousand industries across the province.

Generally, non-clerical temps and temps working in construction reported suffering blunt-force injuries like being struck by an object or “caught in or compressed” by equipment, according to the AWCBC. More than 40 per cent of those claiming injuries were under 30.

Because of the lack of Statistics Canada data, it is hard to calculate the true number of temp agency workers in Ontario. The WSIB quantifies the number of “full-time equivalent” employees, which has crept up steadily since 2008, and now sits at around 120,000.

But that figure does not reflect the actual number of people who cycle through temp agencies. Overall in Ontario, temporary jobs — which include but are not limited to temp agency jobs — have grown at more than four times the rate of permanent jobs since the 2008 recession, according to Statistics Canada. In food manufacturing work, temp jobs have skyrocketed by 110 per cent in Toronto in the past 10 years. Permanent ones have increased by less than 3 per cent.

Temp agency workers are often untrained. In the U.S., where more research has been done on temp work, David Michaels, former director of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, noted in 2014 that “most employers don’t treat temporary workers the way they treat their permanent employees — they don’t provide them with the training that is necessary.”

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.”

On the job

Boris Serebryany’s elegant Forest Hill mansion is a testament to Fiera’s success. On my way into the factory, I sometimes pass his Bentley parked outside.

The company says Fiera’s story is “the story of immigrants” and that it maintains a “commitment to being a starting point for newcomers to Canada.”

Boris Serebryany’s elegant Forest Hill mansion is a testament to Fiera’s success.

Randy Risling/ Torstar News Services

Boris Serebryany’s elegant Forest Hill mansion is a testament to Fiera’s success.

With the exception of some mechanics who appear to be Russian and some supervisors, the overwhelming majority of workers I see are people of colour, with home countries across Africa, the Middle East, and the Caribbean.

“Most of them, it’s their first job in the country,” a former employee later tells me. “You just get locked into it. People don’t know there’s better.”

The factory floor I’m working on is cluttered with industrial equipment, boxes, metal racks; the floors are extremely slippery. My co-worker warns me about them too.

“Don’t kill yourself for an $11-an-hour job,” she says. (I am actually paid $11.50, while some temps hired through other agencies are paid $11.40.)

Our production line is so crowded that we are constantly elbowing each other and I have to squeeze by tall dough racks to get to my side of the conveyor belt. One woman places a plastic tray over a turning gear at the back of a fan; she is worried her clothing will get caught.

Our floor supervisor comes around a couple of times a shift and vigilantly ensures hijabs or baggy sweaters are tucked in, warning us they are a hazard. (My temp agency told me not to wear a hijab, but some women do.) We never have the “weekly meeting” Fiera says is common practice.

At one point, a new conveyor belt is installed. Across from me, the emergency stop button cannot be reached without climbing under another conveyor belt. Fiera’s lawyer Gelbloom said the company “audits its work areas constantly to ensure that we have both emergency stop buttons and pull cords.”

There is no additional training when I volunteer one day to work on the “hard” floor, where a co-worker tells me women are sometimes sent as punishment for talking too much. The pace is even more frenetic here. The gloopy cherry turnovers will clog the machine, so we frantically contort our bodies to grab all of them before they reach the end of the assembly line. Watching me flail, a co-worker — a refugee from East Africa — touches my arm.

“Be calm,” she says. “I am helping you.”

I am so consumed by wrangling the pastries that I don’t notice the forklifts whizzing by immediately beside me until I am startled by a loud horn. A metal guard rail covers part of the line but not where I’m standing. I make a mental note not to step to my right.

Three 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.

In August, the Ministry of Labour also laid charges against Fiera for the death of Amina Diaby, who was killed after just two weeks on the job. A police investigation into the case is ongoing.

Gelbloom acknowledged that Fiera had been issued with numerous health and safety orders from the ministry, but said it has always worked to immediately resolve them, and took “adequate measures” to protect Diaby. He said Fiera remains “saddened” by the deaths that have occurred “at or near” its facilities.

“We believe that the health and safety of our workforce is our highest concern and we continue to strive for improvements,” he said.

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.

Fiera donated $2,500 to the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario in 2007 and has donated $25,000 to the Liberal Party of Ontario since 2010, electoral finance disclosures show. In 2016, the company was included in a provincial trade mission to India.

The trip came just two months after Diaby died.

No one I speak to at the factory knows Diaby’s name. But there are still whispers of the accident that killed her. Once, at the start of one of my shifts, a group of us huddle under the neon-purple glow of a pest-control lamp to wash our hands.

“Just make sure you don’t hurt yourselves,” a male colleague calls out in passing.

“They’ll send you home and bring in a new one.”

Workers’ compensation insurance premiums are calculated in part by injury rates, and by extension are meant to reflect workplace health and safety.

Despite the orders issued by the Ministry of Labour against Fiera Foods, it remains a model employer in the eyes of the WSIB. At a facility where there are hundreds of people working around the clock, there was just one lost-time injury claim registered in 2016.

The company has received multiple rebates from the WSIB for their low-injury claims rate over the past decade. This year, the compensation board did not issue it a rebate because of Diaby’s death. Its investigation found the company “did not take sufficient precautions to prevent the incident.”

But non-fatal injuries to temp agency employees — if they are even claimed — wouldn’t impact Fiera’s insurance premiums.

At the WSIB, the temp agency is considered the worker’s employer. If they are hurt on the job, the agency takes the financial hit, not the place where they were actually injured.

As a result, the compensation system “doesn’t really reflect the safety in the workplace,” says the University of Waterloo’s MacEachen. “It doesn’t hold (companies) responsible properly.”

The Star spoke to three former employees of Fiera Foods who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. They said workers were discouraged from reporting injuries to the WSIB. In some cases they said workers were told they could stay home and still be paid, as long as they didn’t file claims.

“This is an invisible workforce,” Deena Ladd of the Toronto-based Workers’ Action Centre says of temps. “That starts to provide a legitimization of lesser standards and lesser treatment.”

The repeated safety violations found by Ministry of Labour inspectors also don’t affect Fiera’s premiums.

“Nobody is held responsible. Nobody is held accountable,” adds Chris Buckley of the Ontario Federation of Labour. “They’ve built a successful business on the backs of workers.”

Pay day

Even though I am at the factory full-time, I am legally an employee of Magnus Services. But I never meet anyone from the temp agency, and I am not even paid by them.

The agency is owned by Aleksandr Ostrovsky, who lives in a sleek mansion in Richmond Hill. There are two business addresses associated with Magnus; one is a virtual office in a North York office building. The other is an empty unit in a strip mall.

In the initial email I receive from Magnus, it says to pick up my cash somewhere called “GTA Employment,” an address on Steeles Ave. W.

On top of working at the factory, many of my colleagues are taking care of children or going to school, already making long commutes by public transit to get to the area. As a result, some women have not had time to get their pay for weeks. Once a colleague calls me, distraught. Her wallet was stolen almost immediately after she picked up hundreds of dollars’ worth of wages.

When I show up at the Steeles Ave. address, I discover it is actually a payday lender named Cashmania. There doesn’t appear to be any indication of a GTA Employment office. I show my factory ID to the man behind a Plexiglas window, who hands over a fistful of bills and coins. I ask for my pay stub, but the man shrugs; he just delivers the cash, he says.

I call Magnus to ask the same question. A woman picks up.

 “We don’t provide pay stubs,” she tells me. “You get paid $11.50 cash per hour. You don’t have any deductions.”

In an email she received from Magnus Services, the temp agency, Sara Mojtehedzadeh was told to pick up her cash somewhere called “GTA Employment,” an address on Steeles Ave. W. It turned out to be a payday lender called Cashmania.

Randy Risling/ Torstar News Service

In an email she received from Magnus Services, the temp agency, Sara Mojtehedzadeh was told to pick up her cash somewhere called “GTA Employment,” an address on Steeles Ave. W. It turned out to be a payday lender called Cashmania.

I call once more when I leave the factory, this time to ask for my record of employment.

“We don’t do that,” says the woman who answers. “We don’t do records of employment, no job letters, and no pay stubs.”

Ostrovsky, the director of Magnus Services, declined to be interviewed for this story. His lawyer, Leo Klug, responded to some of the Star’s questions in writing.

“Magnus is a responsible agency working with top tier corporations that are regularly inspected by government officials and it takes pride in supplying necessary labour and employing individuals who might not otherwise obtain employment,” Klug wrote.

Klug said “long-term” employees at the agency are paid by cheque with appropriate deductions, and are issued T4 slips and records of employment upon request. Only “sporadic” workers are paid in cash by a payday lender, he said, because “it is impossible to calculate proper deductions.”

Employees, no matter how sporadic their hours, are entitled to a pay stub and a record of employment. Employers are legally required to make statutory deductions. Under Ontario law, if an employee is paid in cash, they must be paid at their worksite or somewhere “agreeable” to the worker.

Klug did not define how the company distinguishes “long-term” versus “sporadic” employees, nor did he provide an explanation for why employees are sent to Cashmania to pick up their wages.

After I describe my payment arrangements to Fiera, the company’s general counsel Gelbloom said Fiera did not know Magnus was paying employees in cash without deductions, remittances, or records of employment.

“As a result of your allegations, Fiera is currently in the process of engaging a third party to audit Magnus and we will extend this process to all temporary work agencies we contract with if we become aware of any similar circumstances,” Gelbloom said.

When we confront Cashmania, a man who identifies himself only as “Kim,” says he is in charge.

We later determine his full name to be Kim Baranov. In 2011, he was charged by York Regional Police as part of an investigation into a $10-million money-laundering and insurance fraud ring, allegedly involving forged passports and staged car accidents. Baranov was accused of possessing a fake passport. The charges against Baranov were later withdrawn in exchange for a peace bond, according to court documents.

Kim Baranov is the man in charge of Cashmania, a payday lender where employees of Magnus Services, including Star reporter Sara Mojtehedzadeh, picked up their wages in cash. Baranov says temp agencies like Magnus don’t have the security to handle cash, so they do it for them. The lack of pay stubs are not his problem, he said.

Randy Risling

Kim Baranov is the man in charge of Cashmania, a payday lender where employees of Magnus Services, including Star reporter Sara Mojtehedzadeh, picked up their wages in cash. Baranov says temp agencies like Magnus don’t have the security to handle cash, so they do it for them. The lack of pay stubs are not his problem, he said.

Ostrovsky, the owner of Magnus, has twice been charged with fraud-related offences, but he has never been convicted. In 2007, he was charged with 10 counts of fraud over $5,000 in relation to an alleged insurance fraud involving forged cheques. The charges were later withdrawn. The following year he was charged with defrauding Wawanesa Mutual Insurance of less than $5,000. The charges were later stayed at the Crown’s request.

Baranov says temp agencies use payday lenders to handle cash because agencies don’t have the security to do it themselves. He says he provides the same service to multiple agencies and that pay stubs and deductions aren’t his problem.

“They pay us (a) little fee and we give them envelopes for people,” he said. “That’s all I know.”

He has heard of Ostrovsky, Serebryany and Garber, but says he personally has nothing to do with “big” guys like them. He just hands out money dropped off in a van every week, he says.

Back at the factory, I chat with some of the women in the break room about our wages. We try to calculate if we’ve been paid the right amount, and wonder why the transaction was so bizarre.

“It’s weird,” says one. “I’m working here. Shouldn’t I just get paid here?”

Paying cash is not illegal if the appropriate deductions are made and pay stubs are issued — but rigorous government enforcement is essential, says Regini David of West Scarborough Community Legal Services.

That task is becoming harder.

The Star obtained the names and addresses of Ontario’s 2,588 temp agency accounts registered at the WSIB. Using Google Earth, we looked up over 450 of them in the GTA.

More than a hundred appeared to be residential addresses, including suburban homes or condo buildings. Around a dozen were simply a P.O. box or were registered to a UPS mailbox service. We visited two addresses, including one 13 floors above the Star’s newsroom at One Yonge St., that were “virtual offices” receiving mail for a dozen agencies. At least one listed address was an empty plot of land.

David says that can be bad news for workers.

“When there’s unpaid wages, it’s really hard for them to get at (these temp agencies). The phone numbers change, even the location changes. And even when they are there, they are NOT there. Their office is not open,” says David.

It also means that authorities lose their leverage when trying to enforce the law, notes the University of Ottawa’s Katherine Lippel, who specializes in health and safety legal issues and workers’ compensation.

For example, the WSIB can ultimately seize a factory if it fails to pay its insurance premiums. But that doesn’t work when a temp agency’s only real asset may be a cellphone.

“Because these organizations are in somebody’s basement, the usual tools to provide incentives to respect the law don’t work so well,” says Lippel.

In an interview with the Star for this story, Minister of Labour Kevin Flynn said he, too, is concerned about how the industry is evolving — and how to hold bad actors accountable.

“As a ministry, we would be concerned that someone could pack up very quickly, avoid any liabilities they have, and open up down the road the next day.”

Who’s the boss?

Even after I wash my white lab coat, an insistent, yeasty smell clings to it. A badge on the coat’s left breast has “Fiera Foods” emblazoned in purple italics on it.

Workers here have been recruited by posters in north Toronto bus stations, or referred to temp agencies by friends. Some are financing school, others need an injection of cash.

But the most common reason I hear is simple: workers are here to survive.

Fiera Foods’ Marmora St. plant sits in a small cul-de-sac beside a highway. The company also owns another factory close by.

TORSTAR NEWS SERVICE

Fiera Foods’ Marmora St. plant sits in a small cul-de-sac beside a highway. The company also owns another factory close by.

At least, notes one woman I work with, you don’t have to wait by the phone each morning hoping for a shift — unlike other temp agency gigs. Some have been at Fiera regularly for months as “temps,” one for over a year.

The ladder to a permanent job, which would mean higher pay and benefits, seems slippery. At one point, my floor supervisor tells me there are jobs available for “people like me.” When I ask HR if there are any openings, I am told there is “nothing specific” available. I don’t personally meet any permanent employees except for my lead hand, although I’m told some of the women who relieve us on breaks might also be permanent.

According to Fiera, temp agency employment gives workers the flexibility to “accommodate family and other life obligations.”

We aren’t paid when we are sick. We aren’t told if we are working the weekend until the last minute. One colleague tells me she is miserable on a new production line; her supervisor will not let her go to the bathroom.

Although we start work at 2:30 p.m., many women arrive at least half an hour early. Getting a good place on the line is important. We take lunch one by one starting at around 4:30 p.m., which means the people who go earliest then have to stand for almost the rest of the shift.

Working at Fiera is better than nothing, one woman tells me, but in her country, factories are not like this.

“They like to drain you in this Canada,” she says.

Cameras are placed in hallways and break rooms, and trained on every production line, which Fiera says is a safety measure. A co-worker warns me not to be too chatty or take my phone out lest it be caught on video.

I take to sitting in a smaller break room, which some women prefer because it is quieter and there are fewer men. There is a locker room here, which permanent workers appear to use. The bathrooms are cleaner, even though all the doors but one are broken. Temps don’t get lockers, so we keep our valuables in our lab coat pockets and leave the rest of our things on open bag racks.

When machines jam up and production halts, women rub each other’s shoulders or crouch on the floor. A fistfight breaks out between the men because of a dispute over dough racks. On another night, a shouting match erupts because one man accuses another of not working hard enough.

 “F--- you,” the man yells back. “I’m breaking my body.”

A young temp worries for the older women on the line; the long hours are too much, and people have family obligations. Then she shakes her head.

“People do desperate things,” she says, “when they have no choice.”

This month, new legislation aimed at protecting precarious workers will go to second reading at Queen’s Park. Labour advocates have been fighting for some of the proposed changes — including a higher minimum wage and paid sick days for all workers — for years.

Bill 148’s measures include more resources for enforcement, and greater protections for temp agency workers. If successful, it will make it easier for them to unionize and prohibit companies from paying them less than permanent counterparts doing the same work.

“I think probably the No. 1 thing that really comes out of it is the protections that these folks will have and the incentive for using temporary help workers in the first place,” Flynn, the labour minister, says. “I think a lot of it will be gone.”

But some workers’ advocates say the bill does not go far enough on temp agencies.

“There are so many loopholes that you could drive a bus through them,” says Deena Ladd of the Workers’ Action Centre.

For one, Ladd says the equal pay for equal work language is too weak. The bill only mandates equal pay for “substantially” similar work, which Ladd says could allow companies to fudge job descriptions to preserve pay imbalances between temporary and permanent employees.

In the case of my production line at Fiera, the changes wouldn’t make a difference. Except for people with supervisory roles, no one appears to be permanent. The new law does not include any caps on how many temp agency workers a company can hire, or time limits on how long they can be made to work in the same job at the same workplace as a “temp.”

The bill also does not directly address injury liability — one of the most significant financial incentives to use temp agencies. The new measures do not explicitly make client companies and temp agencies both responsible if a worker gets hurt on the job.

When asked about how current laws actually create incentive for companies to use temp agencies to avoid liability for accidents, Flynn said: “We know that’s not the right way of doing it in the long run and we need to work with the WSIB, I think, to get a better system in place.”

In 2013, Fiera was lauded by Premier Kathleen Wynne for providing “good jobs” to Torontonians.

Government of Ontario

In 2013, Fiera was lauded by Premier Kathleen Wynne for providing “good jobs” to Torontonians.

Some changes are already underway. Previously, the temp agency sector had its own insurance rate at the WSIB, which was lower than many high-risk industries. That, critics said, provided companies with an incentive to assign dangerous work to temps and give safer jobs to permanent hires, whose injuries would have costly implications at the compensation board.

The WSIB will eliminate that loophole, which it says will “go a long way towards making sure every business in Ontario takes safety seriously.” But the changes will not take effect until 2019. Even then, temp agencies will remain workers’ legal employer for the purposes of injury claims.

Some experts question why.

“Temp agencies used to be just labour brokers,” says the University of Waterloo’s MacEachen. “They weren’t actually employers. They fought tooth and nail to get this designation because it has some advantages for them.”

“(But) they have no control over work conditions. It’s bizarre.”

‘They know you’re replaceable’

After my month undercover, I meet with Sam Byjoo — a former employee of Marmora Freezing Corp., an affiliated company that operates on the same site as Fiera.

He started there as a minimum-wage temp in 2013, picking up his cash as I did at a payday lender, he says. After nine months or so, he was made permanent, was paid directly by the company, and received full health coverage. But he still describes the workplace as an accident waiting to happen.

“It’s really bad there,” he says. “I don’t even know the word to use.”

In his native Guyana, Byjoo took engineering courses and says he wasn’t afraid to call out his supervisors when he saw something unsafe. He also led a briefly successful drive at Marmora Freezing Corp. to form a union, but it was swiftly disbanded. Byjoo was terminated due to “corporate restructuring” earlier this year, he says.

He says he didn’t receive any training, relying instead on his own background knowledge. He describes telling his manager that forklift drivers should get certification and being advised that he should just have enough experience to avoid them.

“No product can be damaged when it goes out the door,” he says. But Byjoo feels what happens to workers is less of a concern.

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“When you’re an agency worker, they can fire you for any reason,” he says. “They know you’re replaceable.”

The factory’s power dynamics don’t go unnoticed even if they are not openly challenged. On a particularly frenetic day, which feels like an endless torrent of shouting, I overhear a woman muttering to herself.

“I am a human being,” she says. “Not a robot.”

I look around the break room on my last shift. Some workers are calling home. Some are mechanically chewing food, exhausted. Others have headphones on — drowning out a Fiera-branded video that plays on a loop.

“You are the reason for our success,” the text on the screen tells us. “Our employees are like family.”

Everyone else has been asked to come in the next day, a Saturday. I feel a sinking wave of guilt that I will not be there. I call a co-worker on the late night drive home to tell her I don’t think I will be coming back.

“What are you going to do?” she asks.

I mumble something vague. I’m tired of lying to everyone. It feels like chance that I have the choice to leave, anyway. There is no difference between the hard work of my parents, immigrants who worked in a factory too, and that of people inside Fiera. But my parents built their lives in another era, before the rise of precarious employment.

The woman on the phone fills my silence. Gently, as she has all month, she urges me to go back to school.

“You are young,” she says. “Get a good job.”

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