Bakery covid outbreak ignored; one dead, 184 infected

FGF bakery workers

FGF BRANDS DIDN’T CARE ENOUGH. Neither did public health officials. Covid-19 killed one worker at the giant FGF industrial bakery in Toronto, infected 184 more, public health officials said nothing. This is not how they promised us it would be. But, it’s how it almost always is in Ontario now.

FGF Brands employs about 2,000 workers in Toronto plants that supply breads and muffins to corporations like Loblaws and Walmart. A major covid outbreak began at FGF on April 20.

‘Boom’, covid hit the line

“That was it: Boom. In my line, five people were positive,” said one worker. The worker contacted a supervisor, panicking. “You have to do something about this. Everybody’s getting sick.”

A total of 184 employees, most low-wage temporary workers, would be diagnosed with COVID at the company’s cluster of plants in northwest Toronto. One worker died.

FGF’s first COVID case was announced to staff in an April 21 memo. Later that day FGF decided the factory would shutter for a full week. It was better than nothing. But nowhere near dealing with the real roots of the spread of the infection.

Deena Ladd of the Toronto-based Workers Action Centre says even the most aggressive response will fail if employers let underlying workplace issues fester — from workers without sick days to those who must work multiple jobs to survive.

Poverty is the greatest risk

Those risks, said one worker, could be summarized in another way: poverty.

“I think people feel sick but still come in. Because if you don’t work you don’t get paid,” the worker said.

Most FGF workers are “temps” hired and fired by temp agencies. Like all temps in Ontario, FGF’s agency workers have no access to any sick pay at all. Even permanent employees receive just five days paid sick leave per year, well below the recommended 14-day quarantine period for anyone who has COVID-19. As a result, many of those who were infected carried on coming to work because they could not afford to stay home.

The brutal treatment of these workers takes place in an industry that is awash with money. Total sales of baked goods in Canada was US$3.5 billion in 2017.

Union drive stymied

Workers began a union drive at one of the FGF sites in 2017. Union busting actions by FGF lead to a labour relations board hearing.

Submissions made at the hearing suggested working conditions at FGF reflected a gruelling and precarious industry.

One site, which would later be one of the hardest hit by COVID-19, operated five to six days a week, 24 hours a day on 12-hour shifts, according to evidence from a manager at the facility.

In a recent decision, the labour board ruled FGF broke provincial laws when it terminated three workers leading the union drive. Even after reinstating those workers, the company continued to interfere with the drive “through a pattern of misconduct” that included surveillance “designed to intimidate employees,” the board said.

“It [the union drive] just completely stopped,” says Kevin Shimmin, an organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers union. “Everybody was scared to death.”

Workplace infection data kept from public

The outbreak at FGF is now over. But it raises an urgent question: why was the public never informed by authorities about an outbreak involving almost 200 people, when experts say workplaces can play a significant role in community transmission?

To date, Toronto Public Health has never published any data on the number of workplaces affected by COVID, and have only publicly identified a few where there have been outbreaks, mostly grocery stores.

“I think by and large, public health forgot some of the basics about how infectious disease moves through populations,” said Cameron Mustard, president and senior scientist at the Toronto-based Institute for Work and Health.

“Going forward now, it will be outbreaks at work that will need more attention.”

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