Workers connected to a union drive at Canada Goose factories in Winnipeg have come forward with numerous complaints against the luxury jacket brand, alleging an unsafe working environment, the targeted intimidation of pro-union staff, and racial discrimination against the largely immigrant workforce.
Five sources speaking to VICE World News on the condition of anonymity and one named source allege the company, acquired by U.S. private investment firm Bain Capital in 2013, has failed to meet basic workplace standards. Those interviewed described inadequate sanitation and PPE distribution and a padlocked emergency exit, in addition to intimidation documented by the Manitoba Labour Board.
Workers in Winnipeg are participating in a social media campaign launched by Workers United this week to galvanize support for unionization and expose what they say are unacceptable working conditions.
“The majority of the workforce in Canada Goose’s Winnipeg factories are immigrant women. Workers report having been forced to deal with low piecemeal rates, and, without a union, no real say over working conditions,” a statement released by Canada Goose Workers United Thursday morning said.
After leaving southern Asia for Dubai, Maria made her way to Canada and found work as a sewer at Canada Goose. She alleged the working conditions she experienced in Dubai were similar to those in the Canada Goose factory.
“You can feel sometimes there is no future at all for you,” said Maria, whose name has been changed out of fear of retribution from management. “A big horn blows and we have to get back and rush as you lose money from (your) paycheque for any lateness.”
“We came here for a better life from a country with no government support and (inadequate) health facilities,” she added. “Before I came to Canada I was in Qatar and then Dubai and it’s the same here in Canada Goose: No humanity.”
A Filipino worker said she felt physically threatened by a white manager for talking to her co-worker. “She saw us from 3 metres away talking and (started) shouting at us and raised her fist as she came toward us as if to hit us,” she said. The manager walked away without further incident.
In another instance, the worker was fixing her machine when she said the manager started screaming at her. “I couldn’t even explain that the machine was broke, and she humiliated me in front of other workers and said there wouldn’t be pay for lost time,” she said.
“White management (treats) us differently as most of the employees here are immigrants and they scream at us, immigrants just trying to (grab onto) opportunities to earn money for our families,” she said.
A male factory worker also spoke of racialized workers being yelled at and treated with disrespect they alleged they had never witnessed directed at white workers—an allegation all the immigrant workers interviewed by VICE World News repeated. He specifically alleged watching managers stand behind older workers of colour and scream at them “like teenagers,”saying “‘Faster, faster, faster!’”
“It is the policy of Canada Goose that employees are treated with dignity, free from harassment and discrimination. All incidents of harassment that are reported are investigated as outlined in our whistleblower and harassment policies,” Canada Goose told VICE World News in a statement.
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Since Canada Goose’s founding in 1957 by immigrant and Holocaust survivor Sam Tick, the company has marketed itself in different ways, first as a rugged outfitter for Arctic exploration, then as a luxury goods provider, and now as a socially conscientious and domestically manufactured combination of the two. The company’s progressive commitments include a partnership with nonprofit conservation group Polar Bears International, a line of parkas designed by Indigenous peoples, and philanthropic celebrity initiatives featuring Ryan Reynolds and Kate Upton.
Many of the winter jackets that endure as the company’s flagship product are manufactured in three recently constructed production facilities in Winnipeg, where workers’ alleged conditions approximate those in countries with more lax labour protections than Canada. The opening of those facilities came with significant fanfare, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister touring the workspace and touting Canada Goose for its job creation and “Made in Canada” apparel. Prior to the pandemic, more than 1,000 employees worked in Canada Goose’s three Winnipeg production facilities. The company also has three factories in Toronto and two in Montreal.
As its name implies, the Canada Goose brand is closely tied to its purported domestic production, even as the company’s non-winter-jacket products are manufactured elsewhere: knitwear in Italy and Romania, accessories in China, and rain jackets in Portugal. According to the company’s 2019 sustainability report, less than 50 percent of the company’s product came from manufacturing facilities owned and operated by Canada Goose, with 24 external Canadian suppliers, eight manufacturing partners in Europe and Asia, and 19 factories also in Europe and Asia.
Before the added hardships posed to front-line workers by COVID-19, workers in Canada Goose’s Winnipeg factories already struggled to earn a living wage by virtue of the piece rate quota system. While workers can exceed the provincial minimum wage of $11.90 by producing a higher number of garments then their baseline quota per hour, the piece rate can also be adjusted by management in a way that reduces additional pay. As the International Labor Office has documented, piece rate compensation in which workers are paid according to the number of garments they complete in an hour has been linked to negative effects on workers’ health.
“Our compensation system is comprised of both a guaranteed rate of pay, which guarantees the provincial minimum wage, as well as the opportunity to accelerate earnings through both skill and productivity multipliers. We follow all federal and provincial guidelines and requirements in regard to breaks,” Canada Goose told VICE World News in a statement.
All the workers who spoke to VICE World News said the quota system means that the number of pieces a sewer has to produce can change at any time, which can then lead to sewers working continuously for eight hours without taking a break. The company says it follows all provincial and federal rules on breaks.
As a company perk, workers are able to purchase discounted Canada Goose jackets, but even at 50 percent of their retail rate, the jackets can still be out of reach for workers who make less than $500 a week. “Our rate for pay is $11.90 an hour,” one female worker said. “For one week of work, that is still less money than (the) price of half off a $1,000 jacket.”
Canada Goose is controlled by Bain Capital, which acquired a majority stake in 2013 and took the company public in 2017. Since its founding, Bain Capital has emerged as a target for critics of the private equity industry, from the mid-1980s when U.S. Republican Senator Mitt Romney allegedly raised initial seed money from families linked to Central American death squads (Bain and Romney have denied the allegations) to the 2012 presidential primary when Romney faced attacks by Democrats over Bain Capital’s leveraged buyouts, which led to tens of thousands of workers losing retirement savings and health care plans.
In 2018 alone, some 33,000 workers were laid off without their expected severance or benefits after three private equity owners including Bain Capital restructured Toys “R” Us’s debt and collected more than $470 million in fees and debt obligations. Employees were eventually given less than half their expected severance and only after months of protests.
Last January, Bain Capital co-chair Stephen Pagliuca gave an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos about his company’s business practices. Clad in an all-black Canada Goose jacket, Pagliuca decried attacks on private equity as “politically motivated” and said that Bain Capital’s business model was grounded in growth, not the brutal debt-ladening and cost-cutting that have long served as the hallmarks of private equity predation. To illustrate his point, Pagliuca lavished praise on Canada Goose. At the time, Canada Goose’s stock market value had swelled to some $3.5 billion as the company expanded its reach into Chinese, U.S., and European markets.
A representative for Bain Capital directed VICE World News to Canada Goose for comment.
Last March, at the onset of the pandemic, Canada Goose secured contracts to produce PPE for hospital workers. Workers in its Toronto and Winnipeg manufacturing facilities were made to switch gears and manufacture PPE—but were not given adequate PPE themselves, the workers who spoke with VICE World News alleged.
“They give us only one cloth mask,” said the male factory worker. “I asked (my) supervisor for two masks but he said you can buy outside. When we protested, management gave us two cloth masks, but it was still not enough. Two masks you cannot use for month after month.”
Canada Goose said the reusable masks were in addition to unlimited disposable PPE. “The health and safety of our employees is a top priority for Canada Goose, and we take it very seriously.”
The company added, “The health and safety protocols Canada Goose has put in place to reduce COVID-19 transmission are consistent across our facilities in Ontario, Quebec, and Manitoba and includes more frequent cleaning of high touch surfaces, enforcing physical distancing, mask-wearing, and health declarations upon entering our buildings. PPE is available to all workers across all of our facilities including masks and gloves.
Our facilities, processes and supporting documents have been inspected and reviewed by Manitoba Workplace Safety & Health, Ontario Public Health, CNESST & Quebec Public Health. All have acknowledged that our COVID protections program meets or exceeds what is expected of employers.”
Workers also complained about the lack of adequate hand-sanitizing stations and said they were initially told to wash their hands in the bathroom after touching surfaces, even though that ate into their breaks and production time and forced them into an enclosed space. “Then after two or three months they put out one single sanitizer for three floors of sewers,” said the male worker.
“New hand sanitizer dispensers were installed at each of our Winnipeg facilities in 2019. This year, additional sanitizer stations have been placed throughout the building. As well, all sewing machines and workstations are disinfected every two hours throughout the workday,” Canada Goose said.
In August, Canada Goose closed the bathrooms sewers had been using for weeks to repair them, forcing them into 10 portable toilets outside the facility. Workers told VICE World News the portable toilets were cleaned so irregularly that workers opted to leave the premises to use the bathroom, having spouses pick them up at work or bringing portable receptacles to defecate into rather than risk infection.
According to reports from the nonprofit media organization PressProgress, when one worker complained to management, they were fired the same day. “No employees were terminated due to comments made about the toilets,” Canada Goose told VICE World News.
When two workers became infected with COVID-19 in November, workers said determining who was infected and where they were stationed within the factory was difficult, and made it hard to quarantine and decide whether or not to get tested.
Canada Goose said it investigates all reported COVID-19 cases, and that anyone in close contact with a positive employee is notified and asked to self-isolate.
Workers reported other safety violations unrelated to the pandemic. After a fire alarm began to sound on a factory floor in Winnipeg last November, sewers rushed to leave through an emergency exit, only to discover it was padlocked. Before realizing that there was not an actual fire, “a crowd started there at the door, and we... panicked because there is the fire alarm,” a sewer told VICE World News. “We are trying to get through the door, but it’s locked and we are afraid to have to go all through the building where there is a fire.” When workers confronted management over the incident, multiple workers said that they were told the door would remain locked.
The company now says it is unlocked. “There was one incident in which a door was locked during a drill. As soon as management was made aware of the situation it was unlocked with appropriate measures put in place to ensure it remains unlocked as required,” Canada Goose said.
While workers in the Toronto factory are unionized (with Workers United), those in Winnipeg are not. Alelie Sanvictores, a sewer and outspoken voice for unionization in one of Canada Goose’s Winnipeg factories, said that the hardships workers face have only increased since 2018 when workers in Winnipeg began a push for unionization. At the end of 2019, Canada Goose was able to successfully block their effort before Canada’s Labour Relations Board, arguing the union must expand its bargaining unit to seek certification. In the interim, Sanvictores said, many workers who were pro-union were pressured to move among three Canada Goose facilities in Manitoba.
“Any movement of workers across our facilities in Winnipeg is voluntary,” Canada Goose told VICE World News. “In 2019, the support required to form a union across all three Canada Goose locations in Winnipeg was not met. The Manitoba Labour Board rejected the union application based on this fact.”
Sanvictores said her union advocacy led to heightened scrutiny from management. “They knew I was a union leader and invited me to join the ERC (employee resource committee),” she said. “When I became more outspoken on the union effort, they made new rules limiting time on the ERC and asked me to leave the committee. They called me into office with HR and managers, and asked if I was spreading rumours, and told me I need to be loyal to the company.”
In March during the COVID-19 shutdown, Sanvictores was laid off. She said the company has hired back 70 percent of the workers, but she isn’t one of them. “I have not been recalled since the spring, I believe due to my leadership on the union efforts,” she said.
“Canada Goose cannot comment on the personal employment history or the circumstances around the termination or employment status of an individual employee,” the company told VICE World News.
During the course of their unionization efforts, workers had some successes. In 2019, they raised an unfair labor practice violation for intimidation and interference after a manager delivered an anti-union speech; the Manitoba Labour Board found that Canada Goose had violated the Labour Relations Act when the manager made critical and derogatory comments about the union days before the union vote. The company was sanctioned and forced to pay a $2,000 fine.
“In 2019, following an internal investigation, one employee was found to have made disparaging comments that do not align or represent the views of Canada Goose. While an isolated incident, this employee is no longer with the company,” said Canada Goose, adding, “It was conduct of this former employee that was the focus of the Manitoba Labour Board’s finding.”
Bain’s guidelines for responsible investment state that Bain will “remain committed to compliance with applicable national, state, and local laws in countries in which we invest; support the payment of competitive wages and benefits to employees, provide a safe and healthy workplace in the conformance with national and local law; and, consistent with applicable law, respect the rights of employees to decide whether or not to join a union and engage in collective bargaining.”
Sanvictores said that despite the hardships she’s experienced at Canada Goose and the obstacles that sit in the union’s way, the legal protections afforded to a union could be a way for immigrants to band together to effect real change. “Canada Goose wants to hold their boots on our necks, and especially new immigrants, (who) don’t have enough knowledge about their rights. If we have a union, we have a voice,” she said.
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Update: This story has been updated with additional comment from Canada Goose, specifically in regards to PPE inspections and clarified that reusable cloth masks were in addition to disposable PPE, and that company discounts were offered to all employees.