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The Amazon fulfillment centre in Brampton, Ont., on July 21, 2017.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario Ministry of Labour is investigating the Amazon warehouse facility in Brampton, Ont., shut down last week by local public-health officials after hundreds of workers contracted COVID-19.

A spokesman for Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, Monte McNaughton, said provincial inspectors had previously visited the facility in Peel Region and that an investigation is ongoing into whether workplace health and safety legislation had been violated.

“Violations of the Occupational Health and Safety Act can result in imprisonment or fines of up to $1.5-million, and we will not hesitate to hold employers accountable if they fail to keep their employees safe,” spokesman Harry Godfrey wrote in an e-mail.

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The Labour Ministry said provincial inspectors had visited the site 12 times between March 1 of last year and March 10, 2021, and that the province has issued eight orders related to COVID-19 protocols. It has also received one formal notice of “occupational illness” from the Brampton facility, meaning one or more documented cases of virus transmission in the workplace.

Coronavirus tracker: How many COVID-19 cases are there in Canada and worldwide? The latest maps and charts

The Ontario government has carried out several inspection blitzes of large workplaces in recent months, targeting pandemic hotspots such as Brampton. Mr. Godfrey said ministry staff carried out 200 inspections in February as part of a two-week campaign focused on Peel Region, handing out 26 tickets for violations.

Amazon Canada spokesman Dave Bauer said the company was co-operating with the Ministry of Labour.

“They were pleased with the comprehensive efforts we’ve made to protect the well-being of our employees. They offered advice for smaller-scale areas of improvement, which we immediately implemented,” Mr. Bauer wrote in a e-mail.

On Friday, Peel Public Health ordered Amazon Canada to cancel all shifts at its massive facility in Brampton near Steeles Avenue West and Heritage Road, a “fulfillment centre” that employs 5,000 people. Since October, 617 workers at the facility have contracted the virus, including 240 in the past few weeks, according to Peel’s Medical Officer of Health, Lawrence Loh. The order, which could be extended, means all workers at the site must self-isolate for 14 days.

While the Brampton site has been in outbreak since October, earlier clusters were considered contained. While Peel Public Health said Amazon had been complying with other health orders, a recent spike in cases, including 10 testing positive for more contagious new variants of the virus, prompted the shutdown order.

Although Peel Public Health has completed thousands of workplace COVID-19 outbreak investigations, this is the first time the agency has ordered a workplace to close because of an outbreak, Dr. Loh said in a statement. In other cases, businesses in the region have closed voluntarily at the agency’s request.

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Peel Public Health spokesman Jeff LeMoine said Sunday that Peel Public Health had provided its data to Amazon and recommended that they close voluntarily.

“Unfortunately, they did not provide a commitment to do so within a limited timeframe we provided for their review,” Mr. LeMoine said, prompting the public-health unit to issue an order to “address the immediate health concern.”

Mr. Bauer said on Friday that the company would abide by the order, but would also appeal the shutdown. He said the company’s recent round of mandatory testing showed a positivity rate of less than 1 per cent.

Amazon would have to file any appeal to the provincial Health Services Appeal and Review Board, Dr. Loh said. Peel Public Health said it was not aware of any appeal having been filed.

The shutdown was long overdue, said Gagandeep Kaur, an organizer at the Warehouse Workers Centre, which advocates for Amazon employees in the Greater Toronto Area. She said employees at the facility were “wondering why it took so long.”

Ms. Kaur said she believes Amazon will be paying the wages of all employees at the shuttered facility until it reopens, including temporary workers. But workers at the warehouse still fear the conditions they will face when they return to work, she added.

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Some worry they will be required to work longer hours and at a faster pace to make up for lost time, she said. And some also believe the crowded conditions that helped lead to such a massive outbreak will remain unchanged after the two-week shutdown.

“Unless something changes structurally, workers are doubtful that things will get better.”

With a report from Tavia Grant

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