In a Toronto Star investigation reporter Sara Mojtehedzadeh has thrown new light on Amazon’s record of worker injury and illness in Canadian warehouses.
The newspaper has confirmed at least 25 COVID-19 cases in Amazon’s Brampton warehouses alone. Documents received through Freedom of Information requests reveal that although in May the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) was satisfied that Amazon was meeting its COVID-exposure reporting obligations, as of November the company had still to register a single COVID claim. Amazon does not release the number of its workers who have tested positive; nor does Peel Public Health make public the names of workplaces experiencing outbreaks, although it has reported that of 137 workplace outbreaks, a third are in warehouses or manufacturing.
Transparency about where COVID cases are happening is important, explains social epidemiologist Farah Mawani, “so the public understands why low-income, racialized communities have been harder hit, and for policy makers to do something about it.”
Although Amazon reports improved physical distancing, cleaning regimens and access to protective equipment, Warehouse Workers Centre (WWC) is renewing its calls, as the second wave now hits Peel, for ‘essential protections for essential workers’ in warehousing, logistics and e-commerce. In addition to safety precautions, this means reinstatement of pandemic pay; paid sick days, including for temporary workers; and improved access to testing.
The core risk factor for injury, and now illness, remains unchanged: precarious work.
(Gagandeep Kaur, WWC)
Internal safety records show Amazon’s injury rates have more than doubled in Greater Toronto-area facilities since 2016. The vast majority of workers’ compensation claims filed have been for occupational injuries resulting from over-exertion or repetitive motion – testimony to Amazon’s obsession with speed and pressure to work faster? The mental health, as well as physical, impacts of working conditions in Amazon’s fulfillment centres have been well documented. However workers, especially the company’s many temporary hires or new immigrants, can be uncomfortable raising issues of workplace risks or fear reprisal and retaliation.
Challenging workers’ compensation
The Star’s analysis of 303 injury claims filed by Amazon workers (covering the period Feb. 2018 – Jan. 2019) with the WSIB highlights concerns that injured workers and their advocates have long raised. Under experience rating, an employer’s poor safety performance and greater rate of serious injuries may mean higher insurance premiums. In what workers’ compensation lawyer Michael Green describes as “aggressive” efforts to undermine injury claims, Amazon challenged almost 80% of serious injury claims filed in this period, arguing “no proof of accident,” an “unclear mechanism of injury” or a “pre-existing condition.” Injured workers have also charged the company with adopting other all too common practices: downplaying the seriousness of an injury or offering inappropriate modified work.
While such tactics keep injury claims statistics down, Injured Workers Community Legal Clinic’s David Newberry notes that Amazon already benefits more than generously by the WSIB’s classification of its fulfillment centres not as warehouses but as ‘specialized retail’, a sector which enjoys much lower insurance premiums. [read full Toronto Star article “Amazon workers saw injury rates double. Then COVID hit.”]
Systemic inequity and COVID-19 vulnerabilities
In common with other areas in Ontario with large racialized communities, Brampton has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. As noted by its mayor and medical officer of health, a large proportion of local residents work in essential services, producing and delivering necessities, and without the option to work from home. A recent CBC podcast episode of White Coat Black Art provides an overview of the working conditions, social and economic factors, and chronic underfunding of local health services that have put the city at high risk.
Brampton’s warehouse workers, like all the province’s workers, deserve healthy and safe workplaces, employment protections including paid sick days and, if sick or injured on the job, COVID-19 relief from the WSIB.
Please read and sign WCIAR letter to the Premier and WSIB President.
- Thompson, Nicole. 2020 Nov. 29. “Spread of COVID-19 in Brampton linked to systemic factors, experts say.” St Catharines Standard
- Marotta, Stefanie. 2020 Nov. 26. “Ontario’s Peel region sees surge in workplace COVID-19 infections.” Globe and Mail
- Centre for Investigative Reporting. Behind the Smiles: Investigating the True Toll of Amazon’s Obsession With Speed. (series) Reveal.com
- Thompson, Mitchell. 2020 Nov. 16. “Amazon warehouse workers in Canada pushed into dangerous race against time.” Ricochet
- Emmanuel, Rachel. 2020 Oct. 15. “COVID response must adjust to social inequalities, say health experts.” iPolitics
- Berkowitz, Deborah. 2020 Jan. 10. Packaging Pain: Workplace Injuries In Amazon’s Empire. New York: National Employment Law Project.