A few weeks ago, Kumanan Thurairajah and Parvathy Thamboo approached the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) about organizing a union in their workplace. Last week they were fired, along with four other union supporters.  

Earlier, Thurairajah had spoken with members of UNITE HERE (the union representing workers at some of the hotels) who face many of the same challenges as laundry workers: low wages, heavy workload, and little job security.

He told them about the alleged long history of “bad working conditions” and alleged unpaid wages at Lincare Limited, a commercial laundry facility in Scarborough that has contracts with a number of major hotels in the GTA.

“I’ve never heard such horror stories as what is happening in our own backyard,” said Karen Dublin, an organizer with UNITE HERE Local 75. “I don’t know how the Ministry of Labour can sit there and tolerate some of these things that are going on.”

UNITE HERE Local 75 was in the midst of bargaining and organizing other hotels so they invited the UFCW to help organize the Lincare workers.

“Under the labour relations system in Ontario, which I consider to be broken, it takes a lot of courage to fight for your basic rights – just to be paid,” said Kevin Shimmin, UFCW National Representative.

Thurairajah claimed he’s owed $9,000 in back pay. “Sometimes, they don’t pay us at all; other times they give us cheques that bounce,” said the driver who’s worked in the delivery department at Lincare for almost nine years.

“Lincare has contracts with many big hotels, but they act like a sweatshop. Lincare owes most of us thousands of dollars and they think they can get away with it because we are new immigrants in Canada.”

So Thurairajah and his co-workers decided to organize a union at Lincare.

“Immigrant workers often come to this country under difficult circumstances and face many challenges here in Canada,” said Karen Dublin.

Even before the UFCW spoke with the Lincare workers, they had been calling the Workers Action Centre, a worker-based organization committed to improving the lives and working conditions of people in low-wage and unstable employment, for the last year to complain about allegations of bounced cheques, harassment and unpaid wages.

Some were even being paid substantially less than minimum wage, said Kevin Shimmin.

Milan Nadarajah, a community organizer with the Workers’ Action Centre, said: “No worker in this province should have to go to work every day and face violation after violation of their basic rights under the law. It is also shameful that these workers had to leave their employer to stop the indignity of regularly bounced cheques or no payment at all.”

But these are common stories often told to the Workers’Action Centre from workers who have relatively few employment options.

In these difficult economic times, when people are having a tough time finding a job, workers are forced to hang on to their “bad” jobs that often pay less than minimum wage, without vacation and statutory holiday pay.

Parvathy Thamboo has been working at Lincare for five years. In the past year, she said big problems have begun to fester in the workplace.

“Lincare treat us very badly, like second class workers,” she said. “The working conditions are very dangerous. We have no safety equipment and the big machines we work with have no safety switches.”

Some of her coworkers have allegedly had their hair caught in the machines. Even when they were seriously injured, she said  they didn’t get time off with pay.

One coworker allegedly sustained a serious head injury and ended up in hospital. “He has not received any benefits,” said Thamboo. “Lincare is a modern day sweatshop. That’s why we decided to form a union.”

Kevin Shimmin, who’s been an organizer for ten years said he’s never experienced a workplace that’s as oppressive as Lincare.

Even though most of the workers have signed union cards, the workers still have to win a certification vote Monday in the midst of all kinds of potential intimidation from the employer.

Meanwhile, UFCW General Counsel John Evans has been retained regarding two applications, one involving an unfair labour practice complaint, that have now been filed before the Ontario Labour Relations Board. The Union is also seeking the immediate reinstatement of five employees who are alleged to have been terminated for their union activities.

“The is one of the worst cases of employee mistreatment that I have witnessed in my 17 year career as a labour lawyer,” said Evans in a statement.

“It appears clear that this employer is seeking to finance its business or otherwise from the unpaid monies owed to employees who have already provided services to the employer.”

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.