TORONTO — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing criticism after he announced Friday that the country is teaming up with U.S. tech giant Amazon.com Inc. to distribute personal protective equipment like masks and gloves across the country.
Public Services and Procurement Canada says Amazon will provide the services at cost and without making a profit, while ensuring “vast quantities” of masks, gloves and other equipment purchased by the government are provided to frontline health-care workers and others in need as quickly as possible.
Amazon Canada said in an email to The Canadian Press that it is working with Canada Post, Purolator and other local delivery partners to distribute the medical supplies throughout Canada.
Critics of the partnership say the arrangement favours the Seattle-based company, which is facing complaints over an alleged lack of precautions to protect workers against COVID-19.
“(Amazon) workers are happy that they have work, but what that (announcement) means in turn is that they will be physically pushed to do more under unsafe working conditions,” said Gagandeep Kaur, a postal worker and organizer with Warehouse Workers Centre, a Brampton, Ont.-based organization helping those in the warehouse and logistics sector.
Kaur and the centre recently started a petition, signed by more than 450 people, claiming that “Amazon is failing to protect our health.”
The petition alleges that Amazon, which employs tens of thousands of people in Canada and has fulfilment centres in Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec, is refusing to give workers paid leave.
“(The government) made a deal with the Amazon, and they never commented on the compensation of the workers,” she said. “I am not happy about that…They actually are keeping a blind eye on it.”
The petition also says Amazon is not telling staff what their plans are if facilities are contaminated or suspected of being contaminated.
It notes that physical distancing is “nearly impossible” across Amazon facilities stuffed with hundreds to thousands of employees,” especially because the number of orders has “drastically increased” as people stay home.
Some warehouse workers are now putting in 50 hours a week or more, which the petition called “unsustainable” and said needs to stop.
When asked about the petition, Amazon Canada referred The Canadian Press to a number of press releases it has put out about COVID-19.
The releases said Amazon has increased the frequency and intensity of cleaning at its facilities, required employees and delivery service partners to clean and disinfect their work stations and adjusted its practices so fulfilment centre employees can maintain a safer distance from co-workers.
The company staggered shift start times and break times, spread out tables in break rooms and suspended exit screening to ensure ease of movement near main entrances.
Workers, the releases said, are also getting reminders to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds and delivery workers were being asked to clean all frequently touched surfaces in their vehicles and other work equipment, including things like keys, steering wheel, buttons, and delivery devices, at the start and end of their routes.
“The Amazon Canada team is proud to partner with the Government of Canada by leveraging our fulfilment network and delivery service partners to ship critical supplies to front-line medical professionals across the country,” Amazon’s country manager Mike Strauch added in a statement.
Complaints like those from Kaur’s group had Matthew Green, the NDP critic for national revenue, public services and procurement, calling the federal government’s choice of Amazon “disappointing.”
“Recent reports of Amazon avoiding COVID-19 safety measures like physical distancing put workers’ lives at risk and threatens the public’s health amid a pandemic. Cutting corners to increase profits during a health crisis is wrong and should not be rewarded,” he said, in a statement.
“We have an incredibly hard working team at Canada Post that handles national logistics every day — privatization can’t be the answer.”
The Canadian Union of Postal Workers said in a statement while it is happy the personal protective equipment will reach workers, it “has serious concerns that the federal government is choosing to make a deal with a private-sector giant that has a track record of neglecting its workers’ health and safety.”
The decision “will put further strain on workers who are already not properly protected,” the union said, noting worker protection should be a federal government priority.
“The transfer of essential services to the private sector can and will contribute to the erosion of health and safety, and worker rights.”
Canada Post said in an email that it is “pleased to support this important initiative to help ensure our vital health-care workers across the country get the safety supplies they need.”
Purolator added, “we’re proud to play a role in delivering millions of face masks and other critical PPE to Canadian hospitals across the country.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2020.
Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press