“A kind of super-stress”: The Experiences of a Temporary Agency Worker in Montreal

by Yumna Siddiqi

Immigrant workers are the first to experience the shift in the labour market towards an increase in temporary work, and the reduction of permanent jobs with benefits and legally enforceable health, safety and labour standards.  Many immigrant workers obtain temporary jobs through agencies that are unregulated and fly-by-night.  R’s experiences shed light on the difficulties that temporary agency workers in Montreal face, difficulties that create what he described as “a kind of super-stress.”

R came to Canada from Mexico in 2008 and obtained different kinds of jobs through agencies: cleaning trays in a bakery, general cleaning work, jobs clearing snow and ice.  When we asked him about safety conditions on the job he said, “Well, the degree of safety that I’ve had is basically nil .” He described “clearing snow at a height of three metres on slippery icy roofs…without safety equipment, cleats, cords, harnesses” for the temporary workers. “At the other end, people that were insured, who worked directly for the company, the whole team was provided with helmets, cleats, harnesses, special tools and special clothing for the cold, and meanwhile all we had was rubber boots.”  R left that job but he told us, “One of my buddies fell, fractured his clavicle, and was incapacitated for two or three months.”

R eventually did suffer a serious workplace injury: “The injury that I had was caused by a fall on a production line, on a conveyor belt. We didn’t have access to the controls for the machines, so people had accustomed themselves to jumping the belt. There was no other way, because shutting down the machine would slow things down and cause problems with production. One of the security railings was loose…I fell on my head, and remained unconscious for a few moments. And there, I don’t remember… After what happened, there was no ambulance called. They sent me to the cafeteria. I was in a state of shock. And they continued with the production, which for them was the most important thing.”

The employer took no action whatsoever after this accident.  Under pressure to keep working to meet family expenses, and because he didn’t want any trouble, R continued to work.  Later, as he continued to get headaches and suffer from tinnitus, he went to see a doctor, but didn’t receive proper care because he hadn’t sought it in time.  “I’m still dealing with some gaps, holes in my memory, even to date.”

R told us that he had witnessed other temporary workers sustain terrible injuries on the job: “Well, I remember in one case, there was a station where there were normally supposed to be two people doing packaging, and they only put one person at the station, to try to force her to speed up, but there really should have been two…She slipped and fell and hurt her mouth, opened up her lip. Intense. For another person, it was their hand in one of the conveyor belts, where the trays come out of the oven, got stuck and their skin got ripped off. They had to take them to the emergency room, and the wound was about 10 centimetres long.”

“One of the worst accidents that I saw, a co-worker fell backwards because the floor is always covered in mineral oil, so he slipped and one of the protective railings on the machine that the oil was leaking from wasn’t there, so he fell, lacerated his hand, cutting his tendons and lost the ability to use his hand. Afterwards, this person went to make a demand to the employer, but the employer pointed the finger at him, and then he started to have problems with immigration. I think he was deported.”

Besides the physical dangers, the conditions of work were extremely gruelling.  R had to work night shifts, and found changing his sleep rhythm difficult.  “It starts to produce a lot of stress in your body, and besides that, physically, you have to be constantly alert and focused on what you’re doing. For example they set you to work in places where normally the machine should be able to function on it’s own, but nobody had calibrated it, because they didn’t bother to contract a technician to do it. It’s controlled with a kind of laser beam in order to keep the size of the loaves of bread standard. But we had to do it manually, so you’re watching these laser beams constantly for an eight our shift… some people ended up dizzy or vomiting. So really, you come out of that totally physically drained.”

But even more draining than the physical stress was the constant psychological pressure that supervisors put on workers.  R described this pressure : “They were constantly threatening to fire us…The state of being constantly threatened with dismissal sets off a kind of super-stress, and that can end up also creating psychological problems. I lived through that, and, well, it’s pretty tough. It leaves a mark on you.”

And the problems then can get transferred through a person to their family, to their wife, their children, neuroses… and a person feels a kind of incompetence towards all kinds of things, their job… being in that kind of situation constantly blocks the kind of consciousness that you need to get out of the vicious cycle.  And having a low wage puts you in a situation where, say, you can’t handle having a whole week without work. And as a result, you can’t leave your job. On a psychological level, that’s really hard to deal with.”

As R explained, employers use threats of dismissal to discourage workers from complaining about their working conditions: “Well, even when you invest yourself in doing the job well, doing it right, that doesn’t get noticed and basically they don’t care about you. But say you arrive five minutes late, then they notice, and that’s a horribly serious mistake for one to make. And all of a sudden it’s like you’re on a kind of blacklist. And so it starts to get complicated, because you can’t even make the tiniest of mistakes, and that to is a pretty serious form of pressure. And just as much, it’s a way to keep a worker submissive. I think that’s one of the basics for the use of psychological pressure as a means of controlling workers.”

R elaborated on the fact that temporary workers form a sort of parallel work force in the same place of employment.  “In a lot of cases there isn’t even a contract. Obviously we don’t have all of the rights that workers have, we’re basically pawns that they plug in to the assembly line until they’re no good anymore, and then they bring someone else in.”

Even though temp agency workers often do the same job as permanent workers, they are almost always paid less.  “I was making nine dollars, in contexts where, in the written contracts that I saw with my own eyes, it was stipulated that a person would be making seventeen dollars an hour, for example, in the packing area. In a context where normally they would have two people working there full time, they have one person, making nine dollars an hour…The difference in pay between what we make and somebody who is hired directly by the company, well, that’s profits for the temp agency.”

Some temporary agencies pay workers irregularly, and frequently, temporary employment agencies ‘disappear’ without paying all of their workers’ wages. As R put it, “Once the term of work is over, sometimes it’s easier for the agency to simply leave its workers behind without paying them at all, without granting them their vacation pay or any other kind of severance, then to go and open up a new agency, and avoid having to even pay taxes to the government.”

R ultimately decided to act on his rights, with the help of organizations that exist to help workers.  This involved “going and presenting my complaint and presenting the situations at work, explaining what had happened, and the resulting debts that I had, the fact that I hadn’t gotten my vacation pay, my rights, and also bringing forward other people that were in the same situation, and bringing them right to the Labour Standards Board [in Quebec]. I put in my complaint at Labour Standards, and the person who was my agent looked through the system and found that this agency owed more than a million in income tax. And then they started to follow the agency’s tracks. But the agency had already closed and filed for bankruptcy.”

Eventually, R became a member of the Immigrant Workers Center.  He described how this happened: “Well, I contacted the Centre when I was, let’s say I was already at the end of my line… I didn’t have a job anymore, I couldn’t get access to welfare, I had zero income. I had to reach out to organizations that provided assistance. And I met a person who told me about the existence of the Immigrant Workers Center, and told me that they might be able to help. So I got in touch, and little by little they got me oriented, and at every step they accompanied me in filing complaints, they accompanied me with translators, they provided contact with lawyers, through volunteers in the universities, and basically because of that I was able to file my demands the right way.”

R’s message for other workers was: “Well, I hope that many people won’t have to suffer the same kinds of consequences that I suffered for lack of consciousness, lack of knowledge about my rights, also that they realise that this organization exists, that they can get help at any time, even if they’re not dealing with any problems… For people that are going through a problem, the most important thing is to find calm, so that they don’t get immersed in that super-stress, since they do have rights, and those rights can be demanded.  They need to reach out, that they need to file letters, they need to make their demands, and not stand there with their arms crossed because if that’s what we do, this situation is going to continue, this abuse of workers…”

Montreal's Immigrant Workers' Center has just launched a new newspaper, "La Voix des Migrant(e)s", from which this article is sourced.

Montreal’s Immigrant Workers’ Center has just launched a new newspaper, “La Voix des Migrant(e)s”, from which this article is sourced.

R’s message for the federal and provincial authorities was this: “There are gaps in the law, through which all kinds of agencies can grow and thrive.  This is a problem that affects the government itself, because these companies aren’t paying taxes, but also because it damages the image of investment, damages the image of the government.  They have to focus their attention on these gaps in the law so that it’s harder for agencies to dodge the law and leave people in situations like this. They should specify exactly who holds the responsibility for paying medical insurance and taking care of workplace safety. Is it the agency, or the company that hires the agency? It needs to be spelled out clearly so that workers can protect their rights.”