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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.


Special to the RJRC

February 26, 2016

The Toronto Star's work and wealth reporter, Sara Mojtehedzadeh speaks to students at Ryerson University

The Toronto Star’s work and wealth reporter, Sara Mojtehedzadeh speaks to students at Ryerson University

Labour and workplace coverage has been neglected over the years in part because newsrooms have been dominated by journalists from middle-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds, says Sara Mojtehedzadeh, the Toronto Star’s work and wealth reporter.

Mojtehedzadeh said that when she first took her job at the Star in 2014, she was astounded by how little attention labour stories received. In the past, labour issues used to be front page news, but in recent years, if they’re not included in business coverage, often they’re not covered at all, Mojtehedzadeh said during a Feb. 3 presentation organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre and the Centre for Labour Management Relations.

She said lack of diversity in the newsroom is partly to blame: “What’s relevant to an upper-middle-class white person is not relevant to the experiences of a working class person of colour.”

Since taking the Star job, Mojtehedzadeh has chronicled changes to the job and work landscape, including the growth in unstable jobs and lack of protection for vulnerable workers.

She said the biggest challenge in covering the beat is getting people to speak on the record about their workplace experiences.

“You’re sort of trying to balance the need and the desire, I think, both on behalf of the journalist and the worker, to expose a greater injustice, with the pressure of the risk that the worker is taking.”

Angel Reyes took the risk and spoke to Mojtehedzadeh about working as a “perma-temp” at a recycling company for five years on minimum wage, with no benefits and no raises. Soon after the story appeared in the Star, Reyes lost his job.

“That really got me down,” Mojtehedzadeh reflected. “It weighs really heavily on you as a reporter.”

Mojtehedzadeh wrote a follow up story about the price Reyes paid for talking to her and it ran on the front page. A reader got in touch and offered him a unionized position with benefits, so his story had a happy ending, she noted.

“It’s a stress of the job that you’re always trying to manage and to balance between wanting to give your editors good, compelling stories, and…the ethics of asking a vulnerable worker to speak to you.”


Mojtehedzadeh said she hears from many post-secondary students and graduates stuck in precarious work. “For young people it’s quite hard to speak out,” she observed. “People are worried that it’s going to affect their future employment opportunities and they’ll be seen as a trouble maker.”

Despite employees’ concerns about putting their jobs at risk, Mojtehedzadeh said she receives many calls from workers who are disadvantaged by gender pay gaps, struggling to obtain bereavement leave and dealing with bosses who don’t pay. When deciding which stories to tell, she said she focuses on issues “where there’s potential to make a difference for as many people as possible.”

Stable, unionized, nine-to-five jobs with benefits are no longer the rule, but the exception, Mojtehedzadeh said, noting that in the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton, less than half of jobs now fit that description. The unionization rate in Ontario is six per cent and part-time, temporary contract positions are the norm.

Women, people of colour, and new immigrants are the majority of workers who are stuck in non-unionized, precarious jobs with little protection under current employment standards laws, she said. At least 45 professions in Ontario don’t have the right to minimum wage, overtime or limits on their hours: “All of these basic rights that a lot of us take completely for granted…many in this province don’t even have access to.”

Enforcement of existing “patchy laws” is weak, she added. Ontario’s Ministry of Labour has 180 enforcement ministers dealing with employment standards related issues, she noted, less than half the number devoted to health and safety. Of the 12,000 successful complaints made against employers last year, only eight were prosecuted.

“We don’t talk enough about the various ways that employers can legally bust unions, ways that employers can legally try and prevent unions from forming or undermine collective agreements,” Mojtehedzadeh said. “I certainly was not aware of how easy it was for employers to get around this stuff.”