'Dollarama is our Amazon': Warehouse workers organize against unsafe conditions, 'misery wages'

Rally aims to force retail giant to back down on plans to cut pandemic pay boost
Jon Milton
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“I get up at 4 o’clock every morning, make a tea, and rush to Dollarama,” says Gaurav Sharma, a worker at the company’s warehouse and distribution centre in northwest Montreal. “I’ve worked at Dollarama for one year, as a pallet builder. It’s a hard job.”

“If I make one pallet, it takes 45 minutes. How can I make 15 pallets in 8 hours? We just have to work, work, work, and for nothing. What, $400 or $500 a week? It’s nothing.”

“There are injuries all the time, and we don’t have first aid,” Sharma says. “A few months ago, I hurt my back, and they just said to go to emergency.”

Sharma is an organizer with the Immigrant Workers Centre, an advocacy organization in Montreal that has spent much of the last year attempting to bring public awareness to the conditions of warehouse workers, with a particular focus on Dollarama. On Aug. 20, the IWC organized a rally at a metro station a few blocks away from the Dollarama warehouse.

The retail chain saw sales rise and reported profits of $86.1 million in the first quarter of 2020.

The rally, which included speakers from unions, community groups, elected politicians, and Dollarama workers, was timed to take place during a shift change at the warehouse, according to Mostafa Henaway, another organizer with the IWC. As the morning workers left and the evening workers arrived, nearly all of them passed through the rally. Organizers handed out masks, juice, and flyers informing workers of their rights.

Founded in Matane, Quebec, in 1992, Dollarama now has over 1,000 locations across Canada and employs over 20,000 retail employees. Its head office, distribution centre, and warehouses are all located in the Montreal area. The retail chain saw sales rise and reported profits of $86.1 million in the first quarter of 2020, a period when many stores had to shut down due to COVID-19, beating analysts' expectations and representing just a 15 per cent drop from the same period last year.

Back in March, Dollarama instituted a bonus for employees at stores that remained open, as a form of hazard pay for working during the peak of the pandemic. Store workers were given 10 per cent wage increases, and warehouse workers had their wages increased by up to $3 per hour. Now, with a second wave of COVID-19 looming in the fall, the company has announced it is cutting the bonus pay at the end of August.

The main purpose of the rally, Henaway says, was to “demand that Dollarama reinstate immediately and permanently their COVID premiums.” It isn’t the first time that Dollarama has attempted to cut its workers pandemic pay. In June, Henaway says that the company announced plans to cut pandemic pay, but backed down after the IWC organized a similar rally.

Speaking to the crowd at the rally, Emmanuel Cree, a social worker who organizes with the Industrial Workers of the World union, told the crowd that he spoke to a passing worker about the pay cut. The worker, he says, was just starting his first day on the job, and had not been informed that the pay bonus was being cut.

'Dollarama is our Amazon'

“Dollarama is not some mom and pop operation,” Henaway says. “It’s a multinational corporation. It has investments from Bain Capital, Mitt Romney’s hedge fund, and it’s expanding into Central America.”

In the warehouse and logistics industry in Montreal, Dollarama sets the standards for what working conditions look like, says Henaway. With around 1,000 employees, representing 5 to 10 per cent of the city’s warehouse workers, Dollarama is able to “be the model of how you make a profit in the industry.”

Nearly a quarter of warehouse workers have suffered injuries at work. The majority of workers are given zero sick days, and nearly 40 per cent received no health and safety training.

“Dollarama needs to be a focus for us, in the same way that Amazon is a focus for the labour movement around the world. We’re making the argument that Dollarama is our Amazon.”

According to the Commission on Warehouse Work in Montreal, a research document released by the IWC in late 2019, nearly a quarter of warehouse workers have suffered injuries at work. The majority of workers are given zero sick days, and nearly 40 per cent received no health and safety training at work. A significant portion of the surveyed workers were employed by the Dollarama warehouse.

What’s more, the majority of workers — and at Dollarama in particular, nearly all of the workers — are not employed directly through the company they work at, but rather through a temporary placement agency. Such an arrangement makes for extremely high turnover, and makes organizing into unions nearly impossible from a legal standpoint.

“Fundamentally, the belief is that workers need to organize for anything to actually change,” Henaways says. “But the problem is that when 90 per cent of people work through agencies, it’s their first job in Quebec, they’re refugee claimants or failed refugee claimants that could be deported, all of that stress makes it difficult to organize.”

Speaking to the crowd at the rally, Andrés Fontecilla, an elected member of Quebec’s National Assembly with the left-wing Québec solidaire party, said that “at Québec solidaire, we say that every essential worker should have their status recognized by François Legault, by the government of Quebec, and be given legal status.”

For Henaway, organizing with migrant workers at the Dollarama warehouse means both organizing on the job and applying political pressure. “What we’re trying to do is to give them a voice to challenge both state policies and regulations, and at the same time challenge the employer,” he says. “For us, that’s the two critical wings of the campaign.”

The IWC and the Association des Travailleurs et Travailleuses en Agence de Placement have been reaching out to workers and helping them organize. Throughout the pandemic, organizers have set up tables near the warehouse during shift changes to distribute information about how workers can assert their rights. They’ve also given out masks and personal protective equipment.

For Henaway, the context of the pandemic has added urgency to the campaign to organize Dollarama workers.

“This is a critical moment, where workers are willing to take risks that they weren’t able to six months ago,” he says. “Our role is to be able to support that.”

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