Over the course of April, May and June a COVID-19 outbreak devastated Toronto’s FGF bakery, resulting in 184 confirmed cases and one death. While FGF has insisted it did everything possible to prevent the outbreak, saying it was “relentless” in its efforts to “keep… team members healthy and safe,” conditions on the ground tell a different story. It is a tale familiar to Canadian workers, in which the bosses maintain a dangerous work environment by using legal loopholes, intimidation, and outright criminality. While a loaf baked with these toxic ingredients may be deadly for workers, they are perfectly suited for satisfying the bosses’ endless appetite for profits.
A history of poor work conditions
The recent outbreak was not the first time FGF played fast and loose with worker safety. In recent years, FGF was twice convicted for breaking occupational health and safety laws. In 2016, a worker at its plant in Concord was trapped and injured in a dough mixer; two years later, another Concord employee was critically injured by an improperly guarded machine. Labour conditions are grueling, with the company requiring some workers to come in for 12-hour shifts five to six days a week. Workers describe conditions as fast-paced and high-pressure.
FGF has gone to great lengths to interfere with workers’ attempts to organize against the company’s exploitative and dangerous behaviour. In 2017, workers carried out a union drive at an FGF site. According to Kevin Shimmin, an organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers union, workers wanted to fight back against the low wages, tough working conditions, and unsafe environment which existed at their plant. The Ontario Labour Relations Board ruled that FGF broke a number of laws in its effort to block the union drive, including firing worker leaders and engaging in aggressive surveillance “designed to intimidate employees.” The labour board also noted in its decision that FGF’s recruitment of employees through temp agencies enhanced the company’s power to discipline workers. When FGF deemed these temp workers’ attitudes unsatisfactory, it would simply tell the agency that “it d[id] not want an employee to return” and ask them “to send a new one in.”
Despite boasting about their concern for “team members,” it is clear that FGF’s management approached COVID-19 with the same philosophy that created such dismal work conditions in the first place.While the company offered three additional sick days for its permanent workers, they continued to give zero sick days—in the midst of a pandemic!—to temporary workers, who make up a large portion of their workforce. Furthermore, workers said that the bosses pushed them to work at a frantic pace, making physical distancing difficult, despite the fact that masks were scarce. While workers recognized FGF’s safety policies were inadequate, the company’s mad dash to maximize profits meant that their concerns were ignored.
The government has been totally indifferent to the horrible situation facing FGF workers. Since the start of the pandemic, the Ontario Ministry of Labour has conducted five inspections at the FGF plant where the outbreak took place, but has not issued any COVID-19-related orders. The government is not even proactively seeking out information on outbreaks, instead relying on workers to report cases to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. This is clearly not working. The WSIB has registered fewer than five cases of work-related COVID-19 claims from FGF and only 70 claims total from the entire manufacturing sector. That’s less than half the number of cases that occured in this outbreak alone!
To some, there is a straightforward way to more effectively address bad working conditions: better regulation. This is what the NDP have chosen to emphasize in their comments on the situation at FGF, with NDP Critic for Workplace Health and Safety Wayne Gates saying that the outbreak provides “evidence that the province needs to guarantee paid sick days for everyone—including temp workers.” We support paid sick days, but in reality, such regulations are in themselves inadequate and will always be implemented in a partial, half-hearted, and distorted way.
The simple truth is that the bosses profit off bad working conditions. A faster pace, longer hours, lower wages, and less concern about safety all increase the profits of the capitalists. Where regulations are implemented which attempt to limit the predatory behaviour of the bosses, they have a powerful incentive to resist them.
As long as the capitalists retain control over their assets and authority over “their” workers, they can avoid employment regulation using a number of methods, many of which were on display at FGF. From outright criminal violations of employment law, to half-hearted enforcement, to classification loopholes (such as labelling workers as temps or independent contractors), no trick is too dirty for the bosses and their army of well-paid consultants and lawyers.
In addition, while regulations might sometimes force the bosses to give with one hand, they simply take back any concessions made with the other. This dynamic was apparent when the Liberals introduced a suite of employment regulations in 2018, including a raise to the minimum wage. The owners of a number of restaurant and fast food franchises simply put the cost of the increase on the backs of their workers, with bosses confiscating tips, cutting staff benefits and eliminating paid breaks.
Fight back with workers’ control!
But if regulation cannot provide the safe and fair employment conditions working people desperately need (and all the more so in the midst of a pandemic!), then what is to be done? The answer is that the power to “regulate” working conditions at FGF needs to be directly taken up by FGF workers themselves. If FGF was run under workers’ control, workers would be able to make decisions on what is safe and what isn’t, and have the power to enact any changes they saw as necessary to protect themselves. Under such a system there would have been no COVID-19 outbreak at FGF in the first place. Workers always knew management’s policies were unsafe and inadequate; they just lacked the power to dictate new ones.
FGF owners have demonstrated a pattern of criminal and negligent management. Clearly they are not to be trusted with guarding against future outbreaks. They should be kicked out of ownership and have their assets seized so that their plants can be operated under the control of FGF workers. Work at FGF’s industrial bakeries has always been cruel and gruelling and the actions of its owners have always been viciously exploitative. All the ingredients are there for future injuries, outbreaks, and other calamities, unless workers seize the power to author a new recipe.