By AMANDA POPE
Staff reporter

Sara Mojtehedzadeh, the work and wealth reporter at the Toronto Star, spoke recently at Ryerson University about her experience working undercover with a temp agency. (Amanda Pope)

Undercover work by journalists is justified only if there’s a compelling public interest and no other way to get the story, says the Toronto Star reporter who recently posed as a temporary worker at a large industrial bakery.

Sara Mojtehedzadeh, who covers labour, precarious work and poverty issues for the Star, said it was difficult to get temp workers at Fiera Foods to talk about their experiences on the record so, to get the story, she went undercover in May 2017 as a temp worker in the Toronto factory.

“As journalists we have an ethical obligation to be completely transparent about who we are, to be upfront about what we’re doing and what we’re reporting on,” said Mojtehedzadeh, who co-authored the final story with Brendan Kennedy.  “So it really does take something super- compelling for us to override that obligation. What we try and look at is ‘Is this story representative of the big systemic problem that it’s worth the resources that it’s going to take to investigate?’”

She said the Star had been investigating temp agencies– labour brokers who hire temporary workers but take a portion of the employee’s wage to make a profit – since May 2016. The use of temp agencies, she said, cuts costs and limits employee labour rights and companies’ liability for accidents on the job.

Her investigation, she said, was sparked by the release of U.S. data that showed people who are hired through temp agencies are significantly more likely to get injured on the job than permanently hired workers: “I wanted to see if the same thing was happening here in Ontario.”

Mojtehedzadeh said the decision to go undercover was made after temp worker Amina Diaby, 23, died on the job at Fiera Foods in September 2016. For months, Mojtehedzadeh said she tried but could not find out much about what had happened beyond information that Diaby’s hijab had gotten stuck in a machine.

“We felt that the person who paid the highest price for these practices was being forgotten. So we passionately felt that her story should have a platform,” she said.

Mojtehedzadeh said that, two weeks after applying for work with the Magnus Services temp agency, she was contacted and told to show up for a job the next day at Fiera Foods, an industrial bakery that makes pastries for Costco, Tim Horton’s, Metro, Walmart and Loblaw.

“There was no screening, no attempt to establish whether or not I had experience working in a factory or industrial environment,” she said. “I received about five minutes of safety training. I was told to not put my hands near the machines and if I didn’t feel safe or comfortable doing something, then they said to go home and wait for the temp agency to call me again.”

Mojtehedzadeh said the workplace felt dangerous. There were ovens operating 24/7, she said, yet workers were not informed of any fire-exit locations or where to find fire extinguishers.

“You would have your supervisors who were breathing down your neck and shouting at you for the entire shift,” she said. “You’re standing there doing a repetitive motion at a fast pace all day, which is physically demanding. Most of the women struggled to keep up with the work that was demanded of us.”

Workers only received one unpaid 30-minute break and during their shifts they did not feel they could ask to use the bathroom or speak up about inequality, Mojtehedzadeh said.

Mojtehedzadeh’s story also documented how the temp workers sent to Fiera Foods were paid minimum wage in cash with no deductions or pay stubs. By law, employers must pay employees on the worksite or at a convenient location for the worker, but Mojtehedzadeh said she was instructed to pick up her pay from a payday lender called GTA Employment, which was a 35-minute bus ride from the factory.

“I had one colleague who went to pick up her pay and literally as she left, she was robbed and lost all of her wages for the past two weeks,” Mojtehedzadeh said. “When we confronted the owners [of the temp agency], they said that this is a common practice across the city and it was normal.”

Mojtehedzadeh said that before the story was published on Sept. 8, the Star confronted Fiera officials about the health and safety violations she had documented. The newspaper then received a 10-page letter from the company’s lawyer outlining its perspective on the laws the Star had violated by sending a journalist undercover.

In mid-September, Fiera pleaded guilty to Ministry of Labour charges related to Diaby’s death. The company also announced it was hiring independent auditors to review its human resources and health and safety procedures and to audit its use of temp agencies.  Meanwhile, new legislation winding its way through the Ontario legislature would require companies to offer wage parity to temporary workers doing similar work to permanent staff, a change the government argues will reduce one of the key financial incentives for contracting out.

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