Reactions by governments to the COVID-19 outbreak have been fast and far-reaching. Our political and public health leaders are acting on sage advice from the World Health Organization CEO Dr. Michael Ryan to “Be fast, have no regrets.” Governments are taking unprecedented measures to contain the COVID-19 spread and to mitigate the resulting impact on citizens and the economy.
Governments have dispatched unprecedented amounts of money to support workers, businesses and the not-for-profit sector. They have taken various measures to help mitigate the impact on millions of Canadians who are without income as a direct result of COVID-19.
Unfortunately, however, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), one in three needy Canadians will still slip through the cracks.
The federal government has promised to add additional supports for those 862,000 people who will not be eligible for EI or the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB); or have not earned $5,000 over the last twelve months; or are without a social insurance number; or are students, artists and performers, seasonal workers, undocumented workers, and others who work for cash or who receive their income from diverse sources on an intermittent basis.
These workers also need protection as quickly as possible.
In the meantime, while most of us are staying home and practising social distancing, health care and other front-line workers are dealing with containment, testing, and treatment of those who have contracted the virus, and providing other essential services. Others are keeping our houses warm and lighted, our water flowing, our mail delivered, our garbage collected, and our citizens and communities healthy, safe and informed.
Our society has always depended on hard working public sector workers, and never more so than now.
Ironically, across the country, these workers have been subject to many years of austerity budgets, cutbacks, and wage freezes. They have been called uncooperative for standing firm on issues like sick leave and other benefits. They have often been ridiculed for having too-high salaries, too much time off, or too-rich pensions. And yet, we are all depending on them now to save our lives.
Also evident during this crisis, is that we are depending on an entire group of other workers for our well-being and safety. These so-called “low skilled” workers have historically been undervalued.
Their work is called “essential,” yet they are not provided the essential protection that all workers need and deserve. Most are low paid, with limited or no benefits, no paid sick days and no pensions. Many don’t work regular hours, and the vast majority do not belong to a union.
They may be temporary or contracted workers. They are sometimes called precarious or gig workers. Most certainly they are vulnerable workers, and the majority are women.
Their work is essential but yet they may not qualify for regular or sick EI benefits and they cannot quit their jobs. They will not qualify for the federal government’s CERB and by remaining at work, they may make less than they could on the CERB over the next 16 weeks.
With COVID-19, their work has intensified and increased, but not their wages. They face elevated risk of on-the-job infection on a daily basis and many work without minimal protective equipment. They want to know: what happens if they get sick? They are scared at work, scared at home, and scared to raise issues when their employer does not follow the rules set out by public health or government officials. They need their jobs.
They need their jobs to support themselves and their families, which puts enormous pressure on them to make decisions about staying home or going to work – even when they are sick.
And although every worker has the legal Right to Refuse unsafe work, many workers, especially those without a union, are afraid of risking their jobs by speaking out.
It is time for government to act fast and address these concerns.
All workers need to make a living wage, and to have paid sick days. They need predictability in their schedules, guaranteed minimum hours, and to be afforded the same health and safety protections as other workers.
The New Brunswick Federation of Labour (NBFL) has specifically asked for amendments to labour laws to include five days of paid sick days, a legislative change that comes with little or no cost to government.
We need emergency funding for all workers without income either directly or indirectly due to COVID-19. And an assurance that information from those who apply for and receive benefits will not be used against them in the future.
All essential workers need to have access to proper protective equipment (PPE) while at work, provided by their employer, and proper safety training on any new products they are using in the workplace.
Governments also needs to fix the labour legislation so workers can more readily form or join a union.
Governments across Canada have refused to pay attention to the deterioration of working conditions over many years, and the growing rise in the labour market of workers who have little to no protections. Governments have accepted the increasing precarity of work without ensuring workers have the most basic of rights.
There has been an erosion of rights for workers to be able to organize themselves. It has become increasingly difficult for unions to organize, to bargain first collective agreements and to exercise their collective bargaining rights, including their right to strike.
This pandemic has shone a light on the lack of concrete protections for those providing the very services we need to survive.
This crisis has also demonstrated the importance of the work traditionally performed by women to maintain healthy and safe communities. Women dominate high-risk jobs like nursing, lab techs, respiratory therapists, personal support workers, childcare workers, community and social services, cashiers, food prep and service, cleaners, etc. Yet a gender wage gap persists where New Brunswick women earn 92 cents for every dollar earned by men.
The COVID-19 impacts will be long lasting. They will transform labour markets but how that happens is absolutely up to us. I hope we never forget those working-class heroes who looked after us, and the importance of decent wages, benefits and working conditions – because even heroes need those.
Let’s hope the silver lining from all of this will be a renewed commitment to make the necessary and permanent changes to protect all workers, not just when catastrophe happens but always. Workers deserve no less!
Daniel Légère is the president of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour.