Stephen Chase, The Globe and Mail
March 9, 2021

Auto-parts makers say their employees are facing increasing difficulties crossing the Canada-U.S. border, with many being ordered into quarantine after essential travel. The sector is asking Ottawa to allow their travelling executives and staff to be designated as essential business workers so they can avoid such measures.

They warn that the Canadian auto-parts sector – where companies have customers and factories in the United States – is now at a competitive disadvantage in relation to American rivals, who face no pandemic travel restrictions travelling state to state.

Rob Wildeboer, executive chairman of Martinrea International Inc., said the situation has been getting progressively worse since last fall as Canadian border guards stop executives and staff attempting to enter or re-enter Canada and direct them into a 14-day quarantine.

He said treatment at the border varies by border guard, location and time of day.

“It’s kind of hit-or-miss, and you almost have to send a bunch of people to get the right number in,” said Mr. Wildeboer, who is also chair of the Canadian Automotive Partnership Council, a group which includes industry and government representatives.

Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, said the industry is not looking for a general exemption for all staff. He estimates there are perhaps 1,000 workers that would need such exemptions. The auto-parts industry employs 100,000 people in Canada, most of them in Ontario.

He said top-level executives, as well as people who inspect, maintain and update production lines, need to travel on a regular basis. “You can’t run this business from your desk in Canada,” he said.

Mr. Volpe said so far the Canadian government has declined to intervene in the matter – a position that is frustrating the industry.

Mr. Wildeboer said the Canadian auto-parts business is heavily interlinked with the U.S. auto industry.

He noted his company, headquartered in Vaughan, Ont., has a research and development centre in Auburn Hills, Mich. The company’s chief executive lives in the United States, as does the head of research and development. “We’ve got plants on both sides [of the border] – 2,500 people in Michigan and 2,500 people in Ontario,” he said.

The Globe and Mail asked staff in Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s office for comment. The Canada Border Services Agency reports to Mr. Blair.

Mary-Liz Power, press secretary for Mr. Blair, said the border controls are in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and a mandatory 14-day quarantine is the most effective measure to stop the entry of new cases. “We are in an unprecedented global pandemic, and the measures we have put in place are necessary to keep our communities safe,” she said.

She said it’s up to border guards to grant exemptions from quarantine for essential and cross-border workers. “Decisions on admissibility are made by border services officers based on the information provided to them at the time of crossing.”

Ontario is one of about half a dozen key jurisdictions in the North American auto business. All the others are U.S. states.

“We have essentially free movement between U.S. states and between our operations inside U.S. states,” Mr. Volpe said. “But when it comes to Canadian companies, we’re at a disadvantage.”

The success of the U.S. COVID-19 vaccination drive has sparked a relaxation of lockdown rules in a number of states.

Demand for new vehicles is driving an increase in opportunities for auto-parts makers, Mr. Volpe said, adding this is a rare surge that Canadian manufacturers don’t want to miss. “The parts sector is on an upslope we haven’t seen since the late 1990s,” he said.

Mr. Wildeboer said parts makers weren’t experiencing these border problems last summer when plants reopened. But crossing the border without restrictions has become increasingly difficult since, and the letter that staff carry outlining their reasons for the work-related travel is proving ineffective.

“I would say six months ago, those letters were good,” Mr. Wildeboer said. “Now border guards are saying to them, ‘Maybe you can work from home.’”

Mr. Wildeboer noted research and development staff need to be on the ground to see products in person, adding that the auto sector follows strict rules to avoid transmission of COVID-19.

Last month, the Canadian government announced measures to discourage leisure travel. Mr. Wildeboer said his industry fully agrees with such actions, but maintains that some essential business travel is still required.

“Our people go down for two days, stay in a dreary motel and probably get their food from a Mr. Sub. It ain’t fun,” he said. “We aren’t taking holidays – we’re trying to run an essential business.”

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