An MP from the governing Liberal Party is proposing a parliamentary committee summon major Canadian grocery company executives to explain why they’re cutting COVID-19 pay premiums for workers.
Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith has put forward a motion at the House of Commons standing committee on industry, to be voted on Thursday.
Both Conservative and NDP members have said they will back his motion, which means its passage is likely assured and the executives will be asked to testify.
Mr. Erskine-Smith is calling for representatives from Loblaw Cos. Ltd., Metro Inc. and Empire Co. Ltd. to appear and “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.
“The pandemic isn’t over. We’ve been given reason in this pandemic to reconsider how we compensate essential workers and whether we compensate them enough and now we see how easy it is for these big and profitable companies to quickly turn back to the status quo," the Toronto MP for Beaches-East York said Monday.
Mr. Erskine-Smith said the timing of the pay cuts – all announced around the same time – also intrigues him. He said that, several years ago, Canadians learned of a bread-price fixing scandal in which major companies allegedly colluded and overcharged consumers.
“Companies have colluded before and I would like to ensure there is no such collusion to reduce the wages of our essential workers in the middle of a pandemic," the MP said, referring to the illegal practice of companies making secret agreements to work together to influence a market.
Late last week, major grocery chains announced they were ending the extra per-hour pay they had given their employees after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As the economy slowly reopens and Canadians begin to return to work, we believe it is the right time to end the temporary pay premium we introduced at the beginning of the pandemic," Loblaw Cos. executive chairman Galen Weston explained in a statement to members of the company’s loyalty program.
“After extending the premium multiple times, we are confident our colleagues are operating safely and effectively in a new normal.”
Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff, who has decried the pay cuts, said he hopes the MPs will also summon front-line grocery workers and their unions to balance out what they hear from grocery company executives.
Mr. Yussuff said it’s apparent that Canadians cannot rely on “multibillion-dollar companies" to take care of their workers. “They need to ask them [the companies] how they can justify taking away the pay increase. They seem like they have no heart,” he said.
NDP MP Brian Masse, another member of the Commons industry committee, said it’s “nothing short of shocking” how grocery retailers have acted at the same time to cut wages, particularly when the risk of COVID-19 has not disappeared and some regions have not even begun relaxing pandemic controls. “The reality is some areas are still in Stage 1 and some are slipping back.”
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner, also a member of the Commons industry committee, said the Liberal government last year announced it would give Loblaw $12-million to buy more energy-efficient freezers. She said she’d like to hear grocery executives describe the working conditions that front-line workers have faced during the COVID-19 crisis.
Loblaw Cos. and Empire Co. could not be immediately reached for comment. Metro communications manager Geneviève Grégoire said the company had no comment.
Mr. Weston, in his statement to customers, also said he is “a strong believer in a progressive minimum wage and would support any government-led effort to establish a living wage.”
Last week, Metro, Empire and Loblaw also announced they would pay an additional one-time bonus to workers.
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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