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Representatives from Loblaw, Metro and Empire, which owns Sobeys, will be invited to 'explain their decisions to cancel, on the same day, the modest increase in wages'

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Executives of major grocery store chains will be summoned to appear before a parliamentary committee this summer to explain to members of Parliament why they’re cutting COVID-19 pay premiums for workers.

The House of Commons industry committee voted unanimously Thursday afternoon to invite representatives from Loblaw Cos. Ltd., Metro Inc. and Empire Co. Ltd. to “explain their decisions to cancel, on the same day, the modest increase in wages for front-line grocery store workers during the pandemic.” In many, if not all, cases, the pay premium was $2 an hour. Empire owns the Sobeys chain.

Late last week, major grocery chains announced they were ending the extra hourly pay they had given their employees after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, the MP from the governing Liberal Party who introduced the motion, said he thinks grocery staff should still be paid the premiums.

He said he realizes minimum wages are a matter for the provincial government, but said he’s detecting a lot of anger at what has happened.

“The outrage is shared among Canadians of all political stripes,” he said.

Mr. Erskine-Smith said the timing of the pay cuts – all announced around the same time – concerns him. He said that, several years ago, Canadians learned of a bread price-fixing scandal in which major companies allegedly colluded and overcharged consumers. Collusion refers to the illegal practice of companies making secret agreements to work together to influence a market.

“I think they owe the Canadian public an answer as to how is it that they announced on the same day they were slashing wages for essential workers in the middle of a pandemic,” he said.

Jerry Dias, the national president of the private-sector union Unifor, applauded the committee’s move and said he expects to appear before MPs as well on the matter.

“There was zero justification to cut the premium,” Mr. Dias said. “They should be ashamed of themselves,” he said of grocery companies.

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He said he believes the reason grocery companies briefly gave staff premium pay was to persuade employees to keep reporting to work instead of collecting the Canada Emergency Response Benefit paid out by Ottawa. “They announced the pandemic pay was ending when they thought CERB was expiring,” he speculated.

He said more than 80 per cent of grocery workers are employed on a part-time basis so the companies don’t have to pay benefits.

Metro communications manager Geneviève Grégoire said the company had no comment.

Loblaw in a statement Thursday, welcomed “the chance to clarify the facts to the committee, in particular that Loblaw acted independently and in accordance with competition law.”

It said the pandemic pay bump is misunderstood. “The temporary pay premium was never about safety, it was a recognition of extraordinary effort. Our stores are now operating at a normal pace, albeit in a new way. Importantly, we have invested far more in our colleagues and customers during this pandemic than we have earned in extra sales. Those investments will continue well into the future. We are not putting profit before people,” the company said.

Loblaw said it continues to keep its employees safe. “As confirmation of the success of these measures, infection rates amongst our colleagues are lower than the general population.”

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Sobeys could not be immediately reached for comment.

Grocery sales shot up significantly during the pandemic, at first because people stocked up on essential items in preparation for lockdowns. As public-health officials encouraged Canadians to stay at home and bars and restaurants shut down – forcing people to cook at home more often – demand for groceries remained higher than usual.

With a report from Susan Krashinsky Robertson

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