Dave Waddell, Windsor Star
March 17, 2020

Southwestern Ontario’s automotive supply chain remains healthy despite the disruption of COVID-19, but industry officials are keeping a watchful eye on a border that’s growing increasingly tighter.

Monday Prime Minister Justin Trudeau closed Canada’s border to everyone who is not a citizen or permanent resident with an exception for Americans. Diplomats and flight crews are also exempted.

There will be no restrictions on trade and commerce, though only four airports (Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver) will be open for U.S. and other international flights.

“With the supply chain in North America so tightly integrated, it would be a disaster if the border was closed (completely),” Canadian Association of Mold Makers president Mike Bilton said.

“It wouldn’t mean the industry would shut down in a matter of days, it would likely be only hours. I think that’ll be the last thing they’ll consider doing.”

WINDSOR, ONT:. MARCH 16, 2020 -- Windsor Assembly Plant is pictured Monday, March 16, 2020.  (DAX MELMER/Windsor Star)Windsor Assembly Plant is pictured Monday, March 16, 2020. DAX MELMER/Windsor Star

According to the WindsorEssex Economic Development Corporation, 40 per cent of two-way trade between Ontario and the U.S. and a quarter of Canada-U.S. trade, crosses the Windsor-Detroit border.

Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association president Flavio Volpe applauded the federal government for keeping trade flowing and recognizing the ‘special relationship with the U.S.’ by exempting American citizens and flights.

“This is a delicate situation at a critical time,” Volpe said.

“The cost of banning U.S. citizens could’ve been access to goods and medical supplies we could only get from the U.S. We know the ethic and discipline the U.S. healthcare system will put into quarantining this virus will be at least equal to Canada.”

Volpe said a real danger to the supply chain is if the car market crashes as it did in China and now Europe.

“We’re not there yet, but we’re monitoring the situation closely,” Volpe said.

Bilton said no plant, other than the 24-hour shutdown at FCA’s Windsor Assembly last week, has been idled for COVID-19 related reasons.

“In the short term, I don’t see any plant closures or dropped shifts. They (automakers) are going to build cars as long as they can.”

Bilton said the Tier I suppliers will be the first to feel the impact if the automakers begin closing plants like they’re doing in Europe.

FCA has shut its European plants and PSA has followed suit. Ford has announced it’s idling its plant in Valencia, Spain and Ferrari has shut up shop for two weeks.

North America hasn’t been entirely immune with Volkswagen closing its Chattanooga, Tenn. plant.

FCA Canada’s head of communications Lou Ann Gosselin said the COVID-19 crisis hasn’t altered the company’s production plans for Windsor Assembly.

“Regular production continues at the Windsor Assembly Plant,” Gosselin said.

“We continue to monitor the situation carefully and take precautions to safeguard the health and welfare of the FCA family.”

Bilton said for the many tool and die and mold-making firms in southern Ontario, their business isn’t as reactive to an automaker’s short-term plans as Tier I partners.

“For tool and die shops, projects take 20-35 weeks to complete, so they wouldn’t be hurt as immediately,” Bilton said.

“The orders are in and we’re in mid-cycle making tools and moulds. That’ll continue.”

The bigger concern for companies is keeping their employees healthy.

Automate Canada chair Shelley Fellows said firms are already introducing a number protocols aimed at protecting employees from COVID-19.

Spacing between workers on the plant floor has been increased where possible and the APMA has created a platform listing best practices for its membership.

“There are restrictions on visitors (to plants) and meeting customers face-to-face,” Fellows said.

“Alternatives using electronics and holding digital meetings are being encouraged.”

Companies are banning travel, encouraging self-screening if employees have travelled and self-isolation.

Manufacturing facilities are also being sanitized more vigorously, especially shared surfaces. Employees are being encouraged to work from home if possible.

Fellows said one of the casualties of COVID-19 was the launch of Automate’s Lunch and Learn series next week featuring Pierre Cleroux (Chief Economist of the Business Development Bank of Canada) and Brendan Sweeney (Managing Director of the Trillium Network for Advanced Manufacturing).

Unifor national president Jerry Dias released a statement asking for employers to be flexible with such uncertain times ahead.

“We’re asking employers to implement systems and policies to protect all Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dias said.

“Don’t require sick notes from workers, waive waiting periods for sick leave under collective agreements and realize there may be legitimate absentee issues due to school closures. These steps are vital to protecting Canadians and minimizing hardship on workers and their families.”

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