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Laid-off PMP workers mark a year

Anniversary sees group rallying for EI, bankruptcy changes

SPEAKING OUT: Fa Lim, centre, speaks at an anniversary rally by former employees of Progressive Moulded Products recently. Last year, nearly 2,400 workers were suddenly left out of a job when the plant closed. (Courtesy Fa Lim)

VAUGHAN – Anger. Despair. Hope.

A year after the abrupt closing of bankrupt auto parts maker Progressive Moulded Products, feelings among many of the company’s nearly 2,400 former workers are mixed.

Hundreds of former PMP employees recently held a rally marking the one-year anniversary of the company’s closure.

Fa Lim was there. His 13 years at PMP, once Vaughan’s third-largest employer, ended July 1, 2008, when he and thousands of others were suddenly left out of a job, most without any severance, vacation or final week’s pay.

“For me, it’s very tough,” Lim said a few days after the anniversary rally, which he MCed.

Before the plant’s closing, he was working a reduced schedule of three or four days a week to accommodate an injury he’d suffered on the job. With his income already reduced, his family had to rely more on the money his wife brought home, he said. She worked at PMP too.

“It was a hard time,” he said. “We had to borrow money.

“The stress level, it’s very high.”

Lim came to Canada from his native Cambodia to escape the injustices he saw in the war-torn country, he said.

“Justice was not there for the people, so we came here for justice, right?” he said. “And then in the end, we find out that there’s no help for the people. There’s injustice.”

Vinay Sharma was also at the anniversary rally. Sharma is human rights director for the Canadian Auto Workers, the union that represents workers at the carmakers that once used PMP parts.

After the company closed its doors, PMP’s non-unionized employees turned to the CAW for help.

“They don’t want the community and the society and the government to forget that we are here and the company still owes them over $30 million in severance pay,” Sharma said. “They want to make sure that it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

“It’s criminal that employers can do this and get away with it, ” Sharma said, adding bankruptcy laws treat workers as unsecured creditors.

That’s what Lim and other former PMP employees are lobbying to change.

“What I fight for today is for tomorrow,” Lim said, adding he doesn’t want his daughter to ever face a similar ordeal. “We are at the bottom of the list for the bankruptcy law, but hopefully the law will change and in the future all the Canadian children, every Canadian and all the generations to come will benefit from it.”

With the backing of the CAW and money from the province, former PMP workers set up an action centre to help their laid-off colleagues cope with the aftermath of the Keele St. plant’s closing. In operation since October, the centre offers counselling and support in job hunting, retraining and navigating the employment insurance process.

“We are here to help and support the PMP workers so they can reach to their goal of a brighter, better life in the future,” said Lim, one of the centre’s coordinators. “You see others that are worse than you that come in here to get help. It’s very tough.

“I just can’t find the words to describe what it’s really like,” he added. “You can see people coming in, some of them tears running down. They lose everything.”

Many former PMP workers didn’t qualify for EI or they did and it’s already run out, Sharma said. For them, making ends meet has been a real struggle.

“If you were earning let’s say anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 and now you’re getting less than $28,000, how do you live?” Sharma said. “Some people have drug bills that are more than that, medicines and so on. Some people had family members that all worked there and now there’s no income.

“People have been evicted because they’re not able to pay their rent,” he added. “So there’s real, real poverty. If you can see poverty anywhere, you would see it among those workers.”

And yet, Sharma said, the shared experience of being laid off and the opening of the action centre have allowed a sense of hope to take root.

“They are able to get the feeling that: ‘You know what, it won’t always be like this. Maybe I can upgrade myself in some way. And the economy can’t always stay like this. It has to get better.’

“So they are very angry, they’re very frustrated,” Sharma said. “They are also hopeful at the same time and they want to make the best of it.”

Vaughan Today
In print: July 31, 2009, page 8
Online: August 2, 2009 [link]