Sangeeta from Punjab is working the one p.m. to 10 p.m. shift in a large Mississauga, Ontario warehouse. She is one of the 200 people from her region on the shift, many working cheek by jowl, unpacking and packing dusty cartons, while standing or stooping and only sitting during their half hour paid lunch break and two unpaid 15 minute breaks.
They are constantly under the surveillance of patrolling guards and video cameras to see whether they try to slip something into their pocket.
The cities of Mississauga and Brampton are in the Region of Peel that is dotted with similar warehouses and a few factories. The workers are housed in the scores of new residential developments and high rises that have replaced farmlands in the region over the past two decades to make room for new immigrants.
The Region of Peel is also the second largest covid-19 hot-spot after Toronto in the latest escalation of infections in the country.
Peter from the Philippines, like Sangeeta, was a highly skilled registered nurse back home and they meet during their breaks, exchanging notes in their halting English, about studying, practicing and scheduling tests to be able to escape their $18-an-hour slavish jobs for secure employment in one of Canada’s hospitals. (The names are not real but the characters are.)
They are joined by thousands more from other parts of Asia, Africa and the Caribbean and some Eastern Europeans seeking “a better life” in North America, many living on the margins, even as some of their countrymen and women rise to business, professional, media and political prominence.
At the confluence of this great migration, changes in business models via new technology and supply chain systems, and the emergence of the corona virus pandemic, is a global economic maelstrom driving race-tinged hate crimes. It must be unsettling for dominant white Western nations, which drove and still benefit from colonial history to see the darkening demographic, when they reflect on the damage their past actions continues to inflict on these regions and peoples. The outcomes have not been good for the hosts.
The push from these old colonies is poor living conditions and substandard wages that barely keep body and spirit together. While at home some in politics and business display the opulence that seems to the many to flow on the streets of the West, professionals in teaching, medicine, technology and other areas, live hand to mouth.
Forty rupees might buy a loaf of bread for a manager of a tea plantation, who earns a fraction of what the waiter serving a tiny cup of that tea makes in a minimum wage job in a Toronto coffee shop. He will quickly give up his 4.5 lakh (450,000 rupee) job that converts at just about Ca$7,400 a year for a chance to make Ca$37,400 a year, by borrowing from family to make the trip to North America.
The pull is the idea of making good abroad. A stepping stone is a Canadian system of post secondary academic and career institutions, government and private, aware of the hunger to be here and so charge a premium for foreign student enrollment. A Ca$5,000 course for locals can be $15,000 for an overseas student and a year or two in classes can result in the granting of a work permit and the start of the trip on the road to immigrant status.
Once in school, usually registered for a business course, the student is on the way to a job in one of the huge warehouses (characteristic of the booming third party logistics–3PL in the trade jargon) that surround Pearson Airport in Mississauga and straddle the 401 and its main arteries flowing north south through Brampton and Toronto.
3PL is the engine of the big-box business. It harnesses production, ground, sea and air transportation, warehousing, online wholesale and retail order management, distribution and courier services into buildings two city blocks square and stacked four or five floors high with wide screen TVs, smart phones, desktop, laptop and tablet computers, high end watches and jewellery, jeans, automotive parts, toys, snack foods … the list is endless. A vast portion is made in China and several of the businesses have seen Chinese investment or complete buyout.
The customers are everyone from Walmart, Costco, Best Buy, Staples to online retailers and distributors with no brick and mortar presence. When a customer places an order online, or even some walk in customer orders, the product is supplied by a 3PL business.
The online model was gaining traction built around holiday shopping and Cyber Monday or Week. It gave warehouse workers steady jobs between June and December. When the term is over, only the best were offered permanent jobs to cover Valentine’s Day, Easter and government or other long-term customer orders.
The six-month and full-time contracts, with no leave or benefits, are attractive only to those with residency status or legal work permits through refugee or other processes. Part of the blame for the spread of covid-19 in these settings is placed on workers not having paid time off and the Conservative provincial government attempted to contribute to the Liberal federal government’s leave benefit scheme to workers so as not to burden businesses further during the pandemic. The federal government replied that its Canada recovery sickness benefit is designed to support workers who don’t have a regular employer and the province should set its own rules for employers to pay.[Shortly after we went to press, the Ontario government announced a COVID-19 Worker Protection Benefit Programme to provide three paid sick days through a temporary scheme ending in September. It would pay up to $200 per day for workers who are sick, have symptoms, have a mental health issue or need to be vaccinated, and will be retroactive to April 19.]
The students, who form the bulk of the workforce, are temps supplied by employment agencies who pay cash daily, offering the students a way to evade paying taxes and maximize their wages used to keep them registered, pay rent, buy food and clothing and send money back home to repay debts or support family.
When the pandemic struck and companies like Best Buy began closing stores and sending home staff, 3PL came even more into its own. Everything we buy these days, even a large portion of food and groceries, is online and the 18-wheeler tractor-trailer trucks now line up at the shipping and receiving doors of the warehouses year-round. Best Buy might have laid off 5,000 workers in the USA and shed 750 store jobs in Canada near the end of February 2021, but online orders jumped almost 90 per cent the company reported.
From the look of things, FedEx, UPS, Purolator and other established courier services have never been busier nipping in and out of residential areas, and independent contractors appear to have hired out all the Uhaul minivans and small trucks to help deliver Amazon goods.
If the roadways are humming with the vehicles of the the warehouses and factories, so too the news buzzes with reports of clusters of covid-19 outbreaks among workers in these places and in the communities in which they live. The government has offered and the businesses have agreed to vaccinate employees at the workplace.
Sangeeta arrives at work daily in a sedan with four others from her country. So too does Omo the Nigerian forklift driver and his countrymen. The respective groups are tight knit. They rent living accommodations together; they worship together; on the floor they work together and chatter in their languages to the chagrin of management and other colleagues; they bring the food prepared at home or that they pool to buy and sit together in the canteen to eat.
It is 10:01 p.m and Sangeeta, Omo and the others on their one to 10 shift are lined up for the stern-faced uniformed security guards with their scant English to observe their pass through metal detectors and determine whether they should be further scanned or patted down for iPhones, tiny memory cards or gold watches that could be hidden away. Soon they will be walking to the bus stops or bundling into the large fleet of cars in the huge parking lot to drive home to their shared living quarters in one of the dormitory towns surrounding Toronto.
They will bed down, get up and eat in the morning and some will probably attend a college class or two before heading back to picking items to ship out at work; and the news will report on another cluster of covid-19 cases at the warehouse and in their region as another student in Lagos or Manilla contemplates coming to paradise.