GM leans on lessons from Asia in reopening plan for North American plants

As Canada slowly begins to reopen, many companies are grappling with how to welcome their employees back to work safely amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Among those companies is General Motors Canada (GM), which has slowly begun the process of opening its facilities.

In an interview with The West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson, David Paterson, vice-president of corporate and environmental affairs at GM Canada, said the company’s employees are starting to head back to work under the “new normal.”

“And it’s been an awful lot of work to make sure that we do it in a really safe way,” he said.

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But Paterson said at GM they have had “a bit of an advantage” because they have been able to mimic safety measures put in place at plants in South Korea and China that are already fully back to work.

“And so we’ve been through an awful lot of the planning and the processes that you need to make sure that all your employees are going to be safe and all the new protocols that you’re following,” he said.

What’s more, Paterson said a number of GM plants in Canada and the U.S. have undertaken special projects to manufacture personal protective equipment.

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“And so over the last month, we’ve been putting all kinds of safety processes in those plants as well,” he said.

But, he said, the company is taking things slowly, and are opening plants in St. Catharines and Ingersoll, Ont., on a “stage basis.”

“So instead of three shifts of work that we would normally do, we have one to start off with,” he said. “And we’re taking the time to do it right.”

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Asked if GM anticipates a portion of its workforce will need to be laid off as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Paterson said the company hasn’t had to and is “working really hard” to avoid it.

And thanks to the government, some of the programs that the government’s put forward, it allows us to keep all our salaried people working and it allows us to sort of bring back our hourly workers,”  he said.

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Paterson said GM — which employs approximately 5,300 people in Canada — has taken advantage of the federal government’s wage subsidy program.

“I think pretty much everybody in the industry is taking advantage of that program because our revenues have completely fallen off the cliff,” he said. “And so, for example, auto sales just last month were down 75 per cent.”

But while he said the program has been “excellent and helpful”, it is only a temporary solution.

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“I think everybody agrees that that’s a temporary thing that allows us to make sure that the auto industry — for example, one of our biggest, if not our most important export industry in Canada — is going to be there and sustained so that when we can find a way, as we’re doing now, to get back to work, that we’re there and solvent and able to move forward.”

He said at GM they are taking “all kinds of measures” to conserve money and “remain resilient.”

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“We’re in really good shape at General Motors, but we’re taking care to keep our people working,” he said.

Asked if he thinks GM will require another bailout from the government — like what was seen in 2009 —  as a result of the pandemic, Paterson said: “No.”

He said the support the federal government provided in 2009 “kept the economy of southern Ontario solvent and moving forward.”

“And now we’re in good, solid financial shape and we’re making sure that we’re going to be ready to drive the economic recovery of Ontario, parts of Quebec, as we bring things forward, he said.

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