Nearly 800 employees of grocery distribution centres in Quebec and Ontario will lose their jobs by the end of 2021, when the supermarket giant Loblaws switches to an automated system, the company said Tuesday. 

A total of 545 employees of a distribution centre in Laval, Que., and another 230 in Ottawa will be put out of work when those centres are closed, and operations are moved to a new, automated centre in Cornwall, Ont.

Brampton, Ont.-based Loblaw Companies Ltd. said the automated centre will also serve its subsidiary Shoppers Drug Mart, or Pharmaprix, in Ontario and Quebec.

“It’s a terrible way to start 2020,” said Robert Clément, a Laval centre employee who will be losing his job after 31 years.

“It’s hell. Maybe not for me because I am 66 years old, but for all my friends who have children and houses and debts. They’re young. It’s hell.”

The Laval centre serves Provigo and Maxi stores across Quebec, handling non-perishable goods. Loblaws will be closing the centre gradually over the next two years, said company spokesperson Johanne Héroux.

The Loblaw distribution centre in Ottawa, located on Sheffield Road, will close by the end of 2021, leaving 230 employees without work. (Brian Morris/CBC)

She said Loblaws will soon begin negotiations with the unions representing the affected employees to discuss a two-year transition plan. The company will support employees looking for new opportunities within Loblaws or “elsewhere within our vast network,” she said.

The company intends to “remain committed to the province of Quebec,” Héroux said.

“Although these centres have become obsolete, and they have, for all practical purposes, reached the end of their useful life cycle, they are both staffed by dedicated and passionate colleagues, and we will treat them fairly and with respect,” Héroux said, in French, in an email. 

The Cornwall distribution centre, operated by a subcontractor, will be expanded and modernized, Héroux said. 

The Laval distribution centre will close in 2021, affecting 545 jobs. (Radio-Canada)

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) said it intends to negotiate severance packages affected by the Laval centre’s closure. Employees there earn between $20 and $30 an hour.

The union also hopes to relocate some of the affected employees, using Quebec’s labour shortage to its advantage.

“Perhaps it can work in the affected workers’ favour,” said local spokesperson Roxanne Larouche.

“It is certainly an attractive workforce for companies that operate nearby warehouses.”

She said Loblaw has yet to describe the next steps, such as the rate that workers would be laid off in the coming two years.

“There is never a good time to learn such news, but at least we don’t only have a few weeks’ notice. This leaves us time,” she said.

According to the UFCW, the Boucherville warehouse on Montreal’s South Shore, which manages the distribution of perishable products, will not be affected.