Sweatshop Campaign Research: Jacob Van Nest

Sweatshop Campaign: Final Report by Jacob Van Nest

The Windsor Workers’ Education Centre (WWEC) conducted research in Windsor and Essex County as part of their Sweatshop Campaign. The project was aimed at identifying workplaces that operated under sweatshop-like conditions in gross violation of Employment Standards Act (ESA) and Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) standards in Windsor and Southwest Ontario. The goals of this project were to identify and publicize examples of places operating under dangerous and/or illegal working conditions and utilize fear tactics to bully and control employees. Present the information to the public, government, and Ministry of Labour (MOL), and to identify workers and document their stories. The Sweatshop Campaign used a combination of literary research and interviews from union organizers and workers who were victims of precarious employment to produce Op-Ed pieces in newspapers and letters to the MOL. It was the Sweatshop Campaign’s purpose to use this information in ways to gain public support and pressure for more effective enforcement of ESA and OHS legislation and regulations.

The early stages of the project depended on the resourcefulness of union organizers to provide information and build a network that could be used to uncover factories that could be considered to be operating under sweatshop like conditions. It was in this stage that a recurring theme was discovered; people are generally afraid or unwilling to speak openly to these issues. All was not lost as these contacts provided information that gave direction to the project. One national organizer spoke anonymously on situations that were beyond the reach of our project but gave clues to how these places operated outside the reaches of MOL and union intervention.

Many factories and plants have closed and reopened as smaller manufactures and supply lines for larger factories. This has allowed owners and operators to run the plants with a culture of fear that prevents people from speaking out. They rely on the division of labour to cause rifts among employees. As some departments or skilled labourers may be treated well, others are victim to ESA and OHS violations. In some cases, it is even said that foreign workers receive bribes with promises of their permanent residence if they put in a set amount of time on the job. This leads the fear factor to being a huge component as to why these places are allowed to operate unnoticed.

In light of this information, WWEC had reason to believe that if these types of violations are happening elsewhere, Windsor should in no way be exempt from these practices (Union town or not). However, in keeping with consistency, local union organizers were unwilling to speak out in fear of legal repercussions. Some even flat out denied the existence of places operating like sweatshops in the area. At this point the course of the project was changed towards identifying places that use temp agencies to fill the majority of their employment needs. Since operating under this business model gives more power and control to the employer, the primary aim of our project was changed to investigating the growing issue of temporary and precarious work/employment in the area. As WWEC worked closely with a group of workers filing complaints to the MOL the Sweatshop Campaign became deeply involved in their plight. In working with this group, conducting interviews and secondary research, we were able to draw connections on how the conditions of temporary and precarious work/employment enable employers to circumnavigate OHS and ESA standards.

The standards of full-time and stable employment that provides the worker with access to good wages, benefits, and pension are rapidly on the decline; in its place is the rise of precarious work, which comes with less job security, little to no benefits, and hazardous or risky working conditions (Law Commission of Ontario, 2012, p. 1). In its creation of a new vulnerable working class, precarious work does not discriminate in that it affects both men and women from differing racial backgrounds. The removal of middle level jobs in many industries has facilitated the growth of precarious employment. Entry level jobs are no longer a gateway into something more secure with better pay; while training, education, and experience do not provide the advantage they once did (Law Commission of Ontario, 2012, p. 4). The growth in precarious employment has given businesses an unfair advantage as they are able to increase or decrease the size of their workforce with ease as they force workers to become ever more flexible and dependant on insecure employment (Law Commission of Ontario, 2012, p. 10). According to OHS standards, the conditions of precarious employment put workers in dangerous situations which they are untrained for. They create a situation of desperation that strains individuals and their families. Precarious employment is not only hazardous and stressful, but also demoralizing (Law Commission of Ontario, 2012, p. 11).

Nandita Sharma (2002) reveals that with globalization, almost every nation state is either importing or exporting workers as part of the neoliberal labour market (p. 18). In Canada, this has resulted in a growing number of people who occupy positions as “migrant workers” and are classified under a separate legal category of humans, which denies them services and protections that are offered to “citizens” or “permanent residents” (Sharma, 2002, p. 18). These people who are classified as “migrant workers” live, work, and pay taxes in Canada, but are actively denied the ability to make claims against the state through a nationalized system of apartheid (Sharma, 2002, p. 18). In her autoenthography, Miriam Sobre-Denton (2012) explains how human beings share the capacity to oppress or to be oppressed depending on the context of the situation (p.224). To illustrate, she uses workplace bullying, which has become a blanket term used to refer to any ill-treatment and hostile behaviour toward people at work that ranges from subtle disrespect to blatant emotional abuse (Sobre-Denton, 2012, p. 226). Constant bullying in the workplace fosters racist and discriminatory behaviour that works to create a toxic workplace for everyone, especially minorities and “migrant workers” who are unable to protect themselves.

In October of 1979, Bill C70 was made into law, which gave Ontario workers the right to know about the substances they worked with, to participate in health and safety committees, and to refuse any hazardous or unsafe work (Storey, 2004, p. 425). As OHS activism spread, the movement became linked with environmentalism, which extended into awareness in the workplace (Storey, 2004, p. 430). Workplace environmentalism was focused on addressing dangerous and unhealthy work associated with exposure to various job related pollutants and environmental stressors (Storey, 2004, p. 430). However, more recently, the processes associated with economic globalization have allowed companies to shut down, restructure, and downsize. This results in massive amounts of job cuts and a reduction in unions’ abilities to organize (Storey, 2004, p. 433). As jobs moved to the private sector or to temporary placement agencies, workers have become reluctant to get involved with OHS movements due to fear of job loss (Storey, 2004, p. 433).

As Canada adopts neoliberal values and strategies as part of its economic restructuring, a reduced model of citizenship has been extended into the field of labour as employment standards get rolled back in order to promote flexibility among the workforce (Tucker, 2003, p. 396). The OHS board attempts to regulate worker citizenship rights in two ways: protection (where certain standards are established and enforced) and participation (where workers participate in the managing of workplace hazards) (Tucker, 2003, p. 397). As responsibility shifts from state protection to individual participation, workers who have little bargaining power are exposed to risks as their employers evaluate whether it is more cost effective to pay a fine or remove the risk (Tucker, 2003, p. 397). Employers seem to harbour less attachment to low skilled labourers and invest less time and money into their training (Law Commission of Ontario, 2012, p. 5). This has resulted in increasingly hazardous working conditions that often result in uncompensated deaths or injuries (Tucker, 2003, p. 398).

From a Marxist perspective, labour and surplus value ensures the creation and reproduction of a healthy labour force, which is essential to the capitalist economy. Expenses on promoting health and safety in the workplace, however drains surplus value, which creates a contradiction (Novek, 1992, p. 18). This has caused manufacturers to develop strategies to restore profits by attacking workers’ wages, increase work speed and production, and maintain exclusive control over the shop floor (Novek, 1992, p. 19). The intensifying labour-management conflict born from management’s obsessive efforts to increase profit margins at the expense of labour, has greatly strained OHS (Novek, 1992, p. 33). The difference in interests between workers and employers and the resulting struggle brings about an on-going negotiation over what is considered to be a ‘satisfactory’ level of OHS (Novek, 1992, p. 34).

Precarious employment typically involves temporary employment contracts, little social benefits, job insecurity, low wages, and poor working conditions that carry high risks of injury (Cranford, Vosko, & Zukewich, 2003, p. 455). Economic restructuring has led to a growing income disparity between permanent employees with deepening lines of inequality along gender, “race,” and ethnicity (Cranford, Vosko, & Zukewich, 2003, p. 456). Globalization and the patterns of economic colonialism between the developed and developing nations promote precarious employment through competition enabled by free trade zones (Quilan, Mayhew, & Bohle, 2001, p. 529). Ontario’s labour market has been transformed by global markets and economic trends which force many Ontario businesses to compete on a global scale with industries that enjoy the advantage of low wage labour and reduced regulations (Law Commission of Ontario, 2012, p. 13). The opening up of markets promotes privatization, which comes with negative effects on the security of workers (Quilan, Mayhew, & Bohle, 2001, p.530). Neoliberal policies help expand precarious employment in developing nations which results in global pressures that work to weaken OHS and other employment standards in developed nations (Quilan, Mayhew, & Bohle, 2001, p. 532).

In Canada, temporary work has been on the rise since the 1990s.  During the last couple decades, the amount of workers using temp agencies has more than doubled (Underhill & Quinlan, 2011, p. 397). In using data that has come from the most recent recession, the MOL showed that temporary work has increased from 8.9 percent in 2000 to 10.9 percent in 2011 (Law Commission of Ontario, 2012, p. 12). These temp agency workers are disproportionately found in jobs that require little skill and they are often hazardous to employee health. The circumstances of their employment provide a downward pressure on wages, employment conditions, safety, and union membership (Underhill & Quinlan, 2011, p. 398). In short, the increase in temporary workers has facilitated a decline in wages, safety, and health regulations while people compete over jobs in a race to the bottom.

There is a growing body of research that investigates how non-permanent employment is linked with self-reported health, mental health, and stress symptoms (Lewchuk, Clarke, & de Wolff, 2008, p. 388). A quick examination these studies shows that having employment insecurities is connected to significant increases in poor health, depression, and anxiety (Lewchuk, Clarke, & de Wolff, 2008, p. 389). Through their research, Lewchuk, Clarke, and de Wolff (2008) suggest that further investigation into the links between health and employment uncertainty shows that poorer health is not strictly linked to the permanency of employment, but rather connected to the working conditions typical of temporary jobs (p. 400). The conditions of precarious work have greater impacts on the lives of vulnerable workers than the work itself. Precarious work leads to a greater risk of injury, increased stress, and makes access to adequate health care difficult. It may also affect personal relationships, prevent further education and training, and cause families to experience the cross generational costs of poverty (Law Commission of Ontario, 2012, p. 1).

Underhill and Quinlan (2011) explain how competitive pressures amplify the risks that workers are made to face as agencies are forced to place and replace workers quickly or risk losing their placement contracts to other agencies (p. 414). This practice contributes to a mismatch in workers’ skills, experience, capabilities, and results in an increased risk of injury due to poor training and knowledge of Occupation Health and Safety (OHS) practices (Underhill & Quinlan, 2011, p. 414). Qualitative research into this area is difficult due to the type of methodology that social researchers employ (Turner, 2010, p. 754). Often we have found that it is difficult to get people to talk about and/or report these kinds of working conditions; especially in situations where there is job insecurity. With this type of research, it is important to find participants who are willing to accurately share their story (Turner, 2010, p. 757). When compounded with low income, job insecurity becomes one of the most detrimental aspects of precarious employment. The fear of job loss is on the rise due to economic pressures. This is especially true for temporary foreign workers who risk being sent home and are unable to exercise legal protections (Law Commission of Ontario, 2012, p. 11).

In our particular case, in helping our group of workers organize a protest at their former place of employment, we were able to stress the importance in sharing their story to raise awareness. Even though many of the workers did not believe their stories to be interesting, a majority of our informants agreed to participate in interviews and focus groups to share their experience. After organizing a group to help plan a protest with the workers, WWEC worked to develop a strategy that addressed the needs of the workers and acted within what they were comfortable with. In a return gesture of reciprocity, the workers participated in a series of semi- structured interviews, which gathered detailed information on specific incidents and violations that occurred in the workplace. Much of the data collected provided over-lapping information, consistent themes, and constant recurring problems.

Nearly all of the workers expressed that employment was never continuous. They were plagued with layoffs and periods where little work was available. This left them desperate to return for work and put in many hours of overtime (which was often forced) to prepare for upcoming layoffs. The informants described the work as demanding, heavy, and fast paced. Where the speed of work was determined by machinery and it forced labourers to keep up. It was described as “simple physical labour for money” that provided no enjoyment or fulfilment and falling behind could lead to being yelled at or disciplined. These conditions of precarious employment are troublesome because they have a compounding effect on health and safety where fatigue can result in higher risk and incidences of workplace injury.

Problems in the workplace depended on where you worked; line work being the worst. One worker who worked off the line explained, “sometimes there was problems, but other times it was OK. You never had problems if you took care of your job, which is easier to do off the line. Working above the line I witnessed how the manager treated workers, I felt bad for them. It is bad.” Line workers described the boss as being very abusive and violent. He was often yelling and swearing at people to make them go faster and would use degrading comments to make people feel stupid. One worker exclaimed “he would often stand behind people and yell at them to go faster, occasionally he would join the line to speed things up. One time he even pushed a worker causing them to fall.” Precarious work under these conditions is not only unsafe but it exposes people to high levels of emotional and physical stress as well.

Working in this type of environment is anything but a choice and depends largely on the economic situation of both the region and the workers. One worker described the situation, “there is not enough work in the Windsor area, there are no jobs. People put up with a lot when they have no options.” They then stressed that “these conditions make people afraid to complain, everyone is afraid of drawing unwanted attention to themselves, they just want to blend in.” Problems in the workplace went beyond the abusive behaviour of the boss. All workers complained about a lack of access to proper safety equipment (in most cases they were expected to provide their own equipment), over crowding in production areas (causing bumps and trips), and work related hand and shoulder pain that persisted beyond work.

When we addressed specific ESA violations there was lots of confusion over whether or not vacation pay was given, the pay was withheld and many workers were unsure if they ever received the pay. The employer charged all employees a fee for union dues, even though no union existed. Breaks rarely met legal requirements, they were often short and sporadic; during peak times workers were pushed to work through breaks to keep up productivity. Daily and weekly work hours were also in violation of legal requirements. During down-time shifts could be as little as 2 hours and during peak periods workers could be expected to work up to 100 hours in a week with as little as 4 hours between shifts. There were lots of layoffs and many people were not given recall rights. Employee turnover was extremely high and no formal training was in place. The employer required new workers to learn through job shadowing and were not provided with on-site WHMIS training.

When investigating specific OHS violations, the most common complaint next to the lack of safety equipment was over crowded working areas (both people and machinery) along with slippery floors and plenty of trip and fall hazards. The ventilation system was inadequate causing prolonged exposure to strong fumes, smoke, dust, and chemicals. In combination of circumstances with these conditions, there was no health and safety committee, no health and safety representatives, and very poor enforcement of any existing health and safety protocols. When asked if anyone has tried to address these issues the unanimous response was “no.”

Reasons given for letting these issues go unaddressed were along the lines of “being too afraid of loosing the job, it makes it really hard to complain.” Another informant attributed the lack of formal complaints to the observation that most employees do not speak English very well and many spoke different languages making communication difficult; “people don’t complain, the owner can’t understand them anyway.”

Although no one interviewed had experienced discipline over ESA or OHS complaints, there were plenty of anecdotal stories suggesting it occurred. Whether or not these accounts are accurate does not necessarily matter; as the stories spread, they work to instill fear among workers and further suppress their ability to raise issues over working conditions. One account describes an instance where the employer fired someone for reporting an injury, “Someone came to work with a Doctors saying they couldn’t work because of a broken arm. The employer let them go.” To back this story up, workers told how they often expressed concern over swollen joints, cuts, burns, sore hands and shoulders, and other minor injuries. In all instances they were told it was not an issue and to go back to work. No one had claimed to file an injury report or seek treatment.

On the day of the protest, we met with the workers and other local union supporters early in the morning at the factory site to block off the driveways and prevent trucks from making their deliveries. Equipped with signs and leaflets we managed to gather some community support, which drew in news crews from the CBC and local AM 800 channels. As the day wore on, the owner eventually gave in and agreed to meet with the workers to discuss the severance pay they were owed. The information we collected through interviews and participant observation produced an article that appeared in The Windsor Star and The Scoop for the National Day of Mourning. We also used this article to write a letter to the MOL to put further pressure on the issue. There is no reason to believe that incidents like this are isolated. The story these workers shared shows that people are afraid to speak out for many reasons and often endure the suffering because of this fear. However, the story also illustrates how people who do speak out can come together and gather supporters. The Law Commission of Ontario makes many good recommendations regarding vulnerable workers and precarious work. Nevertheless, unless there is public pressure on these issues they will remain just that: recommendations.


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Underhill, E. & Quinlan, M. 2011. How precarious employment effects health and safety at work: The case of temporary agency workers. Relations Industrielles. 66(3):397-421.