Grassroots organizer Suzanne Narain. Image: Errol Young. Used with permission.

According to a report released last October, temporary work is pervasive in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood in northwest Toronto. 

“Permanently Temporary: Labour, Precarity and Resistance in Jane-Finch” was written by Jane and Finch Action Against Poverty (JFAAP), a coalition of activists and residents in the area.

Research conducted by the group found that as many as100 temp agencies operate in the highly diverse neighbourhood. According to data from the 2011 census, 44 per cent of the population spoke a language at home other than English or French, and a majority identified as immigrants. 

Since its inception in 2008, JFAAP has been organizing workers in the area to address precarious work and poverty. 

“We’ve been very successful at building a coalition, with organizations across the city and in our community,” says Suzanne Narain, a JFAAP member and one of the co-authors of the report.

“We try to engage people with what’s happening in the community, like rent hikes, people getting pushed out of their home, or conditions in the workplace.” spoke to Narain about temp agency work, legislative constraints, and resistance from community members. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

rabble: How did this report come about?

Narain: The report came about because there are many JFAAP members who are working with temp agencies. At every [bi-weekly] meeting we deal with things ranging from housing, employment, or people having difficulty collecting ODSP [disability benefits].

People were talking about working with a temp agency for the past 15 years and still getting a portion of their wages deducted and thus earning below minimum wage.

So we started to do some preliminary research and found that there were over 100 temp agencies [in the Jane and Finch area]. At one time there were up to 200.

So this is a significant issue, particularly for people in our community who are newcomers, immigrants, working class families — for whom it’s easier to get a job through an agency.

People are not earning a living wage and the temp agencies are recruiting everywhere — you can go anywhere in the community, to find signs on the street, at the bus stops etc.; you see signs for temp agencies and it looks like easy work and easy money but it comes at a cost.

What kind of challenges do people face when employed through temp agencies?

Not being trained properly, getting injured at work, not being unable to access WSIB [workers’ compensation], because they’re not aware of it and because they’re afraid that they’re going to lose their jobs [if they fight for it]. So people come into work with chronic illness or chronic pain.

People don’t have time to go to the bathroom. People being ridiculed and having to work faster, and sometimes fearing for their life. And not just in temp agencies but exploitative working conditions in Canada [also include] people at farms, caregivers and people in factories. They are precarious, are constantly under threat and their lives are in danger sometimes.

What are the challenges in addressing problems like violation of labour laws — if for instance, workers are getting less than minimum wage and get paid in cash.

We encourage workers to request being paid via cheque [or be provided pay stubs] so that there is a record of employment.

Because if you get paid by cash, there’s literally no way of tracking the employment to that company. There was one worker who died a few years back, and the temp agency and factory completely denied that worker worked for them because there was no trace of employment.

But the fear is that [by advocating for their rights] workers will just be replaced because they are working with a temp agency. So there is a lot of fear in making these requests and demands. It’s very tricky because we want people to advocate for themselves but at the same time not lose their job.

Would more inspections from the Labour Ministry help?

Better inspections could be useful. However, the current government is interested in protecting employers and not necessarily the workers. So I’m not sure if more inspections would lead to protecting workers.

*Note: Under the previous Liberal government, labour law reforms mandated 175 inspectors to investigate workplace violations. Only 75 were hired when the Doug Ford government came into power, and instituted a hiring freeze, rolled back progressive labour laws and stopped pro-active workplace inspections.

The previous Liberal government legislated Bill 148 in November 2017, which introduced fairer labour laws [since repealed by the Conservative government]. But your report says that the Liberal legislation had loopholes that allowed temp agencies to continue to exploit workers

Bill 148 scratched the surface of what is needed. It didn’t address agricultural workers, or students and other people who are exploited.* It minimally addressed temp workers. For example, there was no requirement for client companies to hire temp workers permanently or eliminating the barriers to do so. Temp workers still would not have received the same benefits and wages as workers who were hired directly to the client companies.

And Bill 148 happened in response to a lot of organizing by labour activists and conveniently happened at the end of the Liberals’ [15-year] tenure . It didn’t happen because of the government holding more progressive views.

*Note: Bill 148, the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, continued to exclude agricultural workers from unionization, and offered a lower minimum wage for students and servers. 

How do people’s identities relate to temp agency work? For instance, there are large numbers of racialized people or new immigrants in the community. 

It is no coincidence that the majority of temp agencies employ new immigrants, poor and racialized people, in lower-income communities. The people who are the most vulnerable in our city and who are experiencing poverty or have to take on multiple jobs to survive are the ones who are forced to turn to temp work. They are forced to turn to temp work because of the neoliberal labour market where full-time work no longer exists.

One of the things that most workers experience is that they aren’t quite sure of the labour laws, especially newer immigrants or people who speak English as their second language. But even people who have lived here for a long time, are not aware of what exactly the labour laws are. Not making labour laws and rights easily accessible and available is also an intentional strategy of the employer.

If the workers are told something [untrue] by their employer or the foreman or manager, they might believe them.

For the past few years we’ve been doing public education events, where we educate people on what their rights are, how they can access them, or the people that they can call such as the Workers’ Action Centre or the Jane & Finch Community & Family Center

So it’s knowing that these rights exist and knowing that there are advocates working in solidarity with them, because historically these workers have been isolated and alienated. 

How are the workers isolated?

Some people start their shift at 6 a.m. There isn’t time to talk. They have limited resources for lunch breaks. Let’s say 100 people have half an hour for lunch. There are only a few microwaves and bathrooms, so people literally have to eat quickly, and go to the bathroom — if there is time for that. Some people have told us that they have to skip eating, because the lines for the bathroom are so long. There is hardly time for people’s basic needs to be met, much less time to meet and talk about the exploitative conditions of their workplace.

At Fiera Foods, when the last person died, they didn’t cancel the shift that day and the workers had to go back to work. So this demonstrates to people that their lives don’t matter; that even with that grief and sadness and terror and probably fear, people still had to work. They are alienated from people’s lives — quite literally.

What are the broader structural issues at play here? For instance, you mentioned Canada bringing in temporary workers who are exploited for cheap labour.

Canada and much of the global North benefits from a disposable labour market. If they can’t get workers to work in factories here, they are going to [outsource] work to Bangladesh or Pakistan or wherever else they can get cheap workers. So people are competing against each other for work.

And Canada’s immigration system recruits the highest and most educated people. But once they come here, because they don’t have Canadian experience they are not able to work. So then they are roped into the lowest rungs of society in terms of work.

The Canadian economy is dependent on migrant workers to come and take care of their children and elderly, grow food and make products in factories. Not only are these workers often the most marginalized, but also may be unaware of the labour laws and rights in this country so are also the most exploited.

Your report says that most of the people employed by temp agencies are people of colour and typically women of colour. But at the same time, the agencies are also owned by people of colour, and in some cases by women of colour. Can you talk about how the intersection of gender, race and class can play out in temp agency work?

Often when we think of exploitative working conditions, we think of a white employer. The reality is that there is a bigger white overlord,* but the people they have on the ground are other people of colour.

People of colour feel safer among other people of colour to work at their company, or to come to their temp agency, and feel like, “Oh this person can’t take advantage of me, they are from my country, or I know them.” They have this familiarity with the people who are exploiting them.

But also I think it speaks to class because we have this idea that all people of colour are working-class. But that’s not the case. Canada, as we know, is very diverse. We have people who’ve been living here for a long time.

So there are people of colour who are of the upper middle-classes, who know how to infiltrate the communities that are the most vulnerable. And we see this strategy being used on the police force or border patrol, where they hire people of colour so that other people of colour feel safe to share their stories and are then criminalized. 

*Note: The Toronto Star reported in 2017 that Fiera Foods, which used temp agency workers, made products for numerous corporate chains including Tim Hortons, Walmart and Loblaw.

What kind of organizing have you been doing to address some of these problems?

With temp agency work, it’s been like a five-year long process of reaching out to workers — being at the intersections at 5 a.m. with coffee and “Know Your Rights” information, having public events and talking to people about the conditions at their workplace; launching the report, having more events, supporting workers. I think it’s multi layered.

It’s constantly being on the ground, listening to workers and trying to respond in the ways that the community needs, like showing up at our MPPs office or having a demonstration outside Fiera Foods.

We use very various strategies to get our message heard and make workers and people in the community feel protected and that they can live with dignity in our community and this country.

What are the barriers to unionizing temp agency workers?

I think the biggest fear is losing their jobs. Last year, when we were at the Fiera Foods factory, handing out’ pamphlets, some people were literally afraid to talk to us because the employer had a truck driving up and down the street watching workers as they talked to us, and even people from the factory were just coming and watching which workers were talking to the people on the street.

So I think that there is a fear of consequences of what it would mean to even talk to JFAAP or Workers Action Centre. So asking them to unionize is an even bigger risk as they will feel more at risk losing their job or losing their security.

Zaid Noorsumar is a journalist who has written for the CBC, The Canadian Press, the Toronto Star and He was rabble’s labour beat reporter for 2019.

Image: Errol Young. Used with permission.


Zaid Noorsumar

Zaid Noorsumar is a journalist who has contributed to CBC, The Canadian Press and among other news outlets on issues spanning labour, politics, social justice and sports.