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Toronto Star labour reporter speaks at Ryerson about the dangers of precarious work

By Urbi Khan 

Working conditions of so called “precarious jobs” can be unsafe and have a financial risk for temporary workers, as they are not protected by the companies or the agencies which hire them, said Sara Mojtehedzadeh a Toronto Star labour reporter. 

 Mojtehedzadeh gave a lecture to students at Ted Rogers School of Management (TRSM) on Monday regarding her undercover investigation at a Toronto industrial bakery to find out how precarious work affects the employee-employer relationship and how it is reshaping our current economy.

Precarious work are odd jobs that can include temporary positions, contract jobs which are not securely held in position for employees.

What sparked the investigation? 

Mojtehedzadeh went undercover at Fiera Foods, an industrial bakery in North York, where she investigated the condition of temp workers at the factory after a 23-year-old female temporary worker, Amina Diaby, died after working there for only two weeks.

No one at Fiera Foods was giving Mojtehedzadeh information regarding Diaby’s death. Authorities only gave a simplified explanation to her inquires; that Diaby had died because her hijab had gotten caught in the machinery.

Mojtehedzadeh said she felt “really passionate” about telling this story because she wanted to give Diaby and her family a platform.

“People working in temp agencies are [prone] to more injuries than hired workers. [The Star] went undercover to investigate as Toronto does not collect enough data on precarious work as the U.S. does,” she said. 

Mojtehedzadeh conducted the investigation because she believed this was a compelling public interest story as precarious job workers are a vulnerable sect of people who are an ever growing population in the GTA.

“Precarious work goes with the gig economy, however it is just not for young people. Newcomers and low-income people work precarious jobs as well,” said Mojtehedzadeh.

According to Mojtehedzadeh, temporary workers are paid significantly less than hired workers for doing the same job. 

An October 2017 study on employment  by Statistics Canada found that  permanent workers were paid and average of $27.24 per hour, while temporary workers were paid only $21.57. The study looked at average hourly wages of employees by employment status and occupation.

Company reliance on temp agencies

Mojtehedzadeh found it “immediately clear” in her investigation that factories in Toronto are heavily based on temporary agencies—the link between the temporary  workers and the companies. For instance, if a temporary worker gets injured on the job, the temporary agency is liable, not the company which hired the worker through the agency. In this way, it makes it more flexible for companies to hire a temp than a hired worker as it is cheaper.

Companies believe that they are providing temporary workers with flexibility as they can “pick up a shift whenever they like,” Mojtehedzadeh said.

“The reality is that the flexibility goes in one direction. As the company can let you go for any reason.”

“There is really no flexibility as one colleague of mine [while working undercover] could not keep up with the shifts as it did not go with her childcare schedule.”

Working conditions as a temp worker

Working conditions for temporary workers can be harsh as they are not given much freedom while working. According to Mojtehedzadeh, while she was working at Fiera Foods she witnessed the temp workers had to ask to go to the washroom as they were not given breaks to do so.

Temp workers were also not given proper safety training upon arriving at Fiera Foods. Mojtehedzadeh was given a five minute safety training that only covered some of the dos and don’ts of the factory.

“This was not grandma’s kitchen. This was really an environment where you needed hands on training,” said Mojtehedzadeh. “We weren’t told where the fire exits were. The supervisors were constantly breathing down our necks and shouting [while working]. In a precarious environment, it was difficult for people to speak up.”

Upon applying for a temp position for her undercover work, Mojtehedzadeh did not have to go through a background screening by the temporary agency for Fiera Foods. She only had to provide her first and last name and her social insurance number. For her last name, she opted for her grandmother’s maiden name, Heshmati.

Throughout her investigation and under the freedom of information request, Mojtehedzadeh found out that these temporary  agencies, including Magnus Services where she was hired, did not have offices. They were either located in a section of a strip mall or in an apartment or a condo. Often, the call receiver from the temp agency was “just a voice on the other side of the phone.” The only physical connection to the temp agency was a post box number. This means that no one can be held accountable if something happens to the temp worker during the job.

The temp workers, including Mojtahedzadeh, were only paid in cash. She was told by her temp agency to go pick up her payment at a GTA employment pay lender called Cash Mania.

According to Mojtehedzadeh it is not illegal to pay temp workers in cash. However, it is a safety and convenience issue for workers collecting their pay. One of Mojtehedzadeh’s colleagues from Fierra Foods was robbed when she was on her way home after collecting her pay in cash.

Student reaction to precarious work

Most students attending the lecture said that they did not have any previous experience with precarious jobs that are as harsh as the temporary positions at Fiera Foods. However, they did say they are now more informed of what entails as precarious jobs.

“I actually took away a lot. I did not realize it would be as informative as it was,” said Karinna Baloch, a third-year business management student at Ryerson who is majoring in law.

“I did gain a lot of knowledge about temp agencies and how employees are affected by the work environment just to get a minimum wage and some sort of job opportunity.”

Baloch added that she hopes she does not have to to do precarious jobs in the future.

“I would like to understand in depth why people have to take up precarious job,” said Baloch. “Like immigrants and newcomers to Canada; I’m guessing they need the work to pay the bills and to put food on the table. Like [Mojtehedzadeh] was talking about the mother with four children juggling work. So, I see why some people have to come to this situation but hopefully, I don’t have to.”

What is the possible outcome of this investigation?

Mojtehedzadeh hopes that this investigation makes people understand not to take people who work precarious jobs for granted.

With this investigation out, Queen’s Park is continuing their work with a law to tackle the “complicit nature” of temp agencies through Ontario to make work safer for temporary workers.

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