MONTREAL — Dollarama workers in Montreal are demanding higher wages and better working conditions after the retailer ended its temporary coronavirus pay boost earlier this month.
Employees at Dollarama stores received a 10 per cent wage increase at the end of March while warehouse workers saw a $3 raise for employees who typically start near minimum wage, which in Quebec is $13.10.
Dollarama and several other retailers launched their so-called pandemic pay programs as COVID-19 began to spread throughout Canada, triggering unprecedented working conditions amid a shopping frenzy that left some store shelves bare as companies scrambled to restock products ranging from flour to paper towels.
The Montreal-based retailer stopped the pay premiums on Aug. 2 after extending them for a month and a half beyond the expected end date.
Despite Dollarama's efforts to ramp up health measures amid the pandemic, it is not possible to maintain physical distancing inside its Montreal warehouse, said organizers at a demonstration near the facility in Montreal on Thursday afternoon. Hundreds of employees clock in and out at the same time and work on the same floor, they said.
Gaurav Sharma, who works as a pallet builder in the warehouse, described conditions as "the very worst" due to a lack of onsite medical resources and inconsistent adherence to health measures such as masks and distancing.
"Some people are putting on masks, some people are not putting on masks," said Sharma, 40.
"It's very hard work, and the salary is very low," he said of his job, which involves lifting and stacking boxes.
Sharma, who lives with his wife, sister and father, said he is concerned about the precariousness of both his health and income, particularly for his family.
"He has a lot of medical problems," Sharma said of his 72-year-old dad. "My father and my sister are dependent on me."
The distribution centre is staffed primarily by immigrants and asylum seekers employed through temporary placement agencies, leaving already vulnerable workers in a less secure position, said organizers with the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montreal.
Dollarama said it continues to adhere to strict COVID-19 health and safety protocols across its operations, having developed them in collaboration with government agencies at the outset of the pandemic.
"The repeatedly recycled claims being made by these third parties regarding Dollarama's working conditions and response to the pandemic are 100 per cent false and unfounded," spokeswoman Lyla Radmanovich wrote in an email.
"Pay scales for our workforce continue to be competitive — both in stores and in our logistics chain — and have evolved throughout the course of the pandemic, dictated by market conditions."
Canada's three major grocers — Loblaw Companies Ltd., Metro Inc, and Empire Co. Ltd. — also halted their temporary pandemic pay bonuses simultaneously in mid-June.
The news sparked a backlash, with unions representing some of the workers pushing back against the decision saying the pandemic was not over. Unifor National called for the increased pay to be made permanent.
A parliamentary committee hearing last month saw executives from the three grocery chains face questions over their cancellation of the $2-per-hour wage increase, which was implemented in March.
The grocers have said they stopped the programs as the COVID-19 situation stabilized at their stores and distribution centres. Loblaw also indicated it was no longer benefiting financially from the pandemic despite increased sales as it invested hundreds of millions of dollars into safety measures.
Dollarama reported a year-over-year sales boost of two per cent to $844.8 million and a nearly 17 per cent drop in net earnings to $86.1 million in the quarter ended June 30.
"$86.1 million in profit," read one attendee's sign at the demonstration Thursday afternoon, "but nothing for workers."
About 50 protestors attended the event, calling for permanent restoration of the pandemic pay and safer working conditions between chants of "solidarity."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 19, 2020
Companies in this story: (TSX:DOL, TSX:MRU, TSX:L, TSX:EMP.A)
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press