This Labour Day, resolve to make life better for underpaid, undervalued ‘heroes’

Posted on September 7, 2020 in Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Editorials

That the first Monday in September is a statutory holiday in Canada has roots that go all the way back to 1872, when Toronto printers went on strike for decent working conditions.

Nowadays Labour Day is celebrated more than anything else as a last-gasp holiday before the end of summer. But this holiday Monday, even without the customary parades, can’t help but evoke more of its traditional role in calling attention to the need for better pay and conditions for the workers abandoned on the sidelines of economic progress. And not just because the coronavirus has cut into the possibilities for long-weekend fun.

As the pandemic laid waste to our economy it ruthless exposed the deep inequalities in our communities and how badly frayed our social safety net has become. It revealed how much is wrong with the labour market and how completely outdated and inadequate are government regulations when it comes to doing anything about it.

Millions of Canadians were plunged into unemployment as much of the economy were closed overnight to curtail the coronavirus. So few of them would have qualified for existing unemployment benefits that the federal government had to rush out new support programs to stave off an even bigger economic disaster.

The crisis made it impossible to ignore how low-paid and precarious work has become for so many people. And it’s made it clear that’s not just a tragedy for them; it’s a problem for us all.

The use of poorly paid, part-time personal support workers and temp agency staff in long-term-care homes, for example, served to undermine the precautions that could have kept seniors in those homes safer and indeed alive. And on the front lines of essential services, from food production to grocery stores, too many people had no sickness benefits, making it difficult for them to stay home when ill, increasing the risks for everyone.

Ontario actually had to recall the legislature to pass a law making it clear that workers can’t be fired just for being sick or staying home to care for children at a time of crisis. That’s how bad we’ve let things get.

Already the crisis has forced some improvements. Last month, the Trudeau government announced an overhaul of Canada’s antiquated Employment Insurance program, making it easier for people to qualify and increasing the payouts. It also launched three new programs, including an income benefit for the self-employed and contract workers and a COVID-19 caregiver benefit and sickness benefit.

The benefits still need to be enacted by Parliament and, even then, they’re meant to be temporary while the government drafts what the Liberals have promised will be a more equitable and inclusive post-pandemic economy.

Canadians must hold Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to that promise and keep at bay those who push back against those who will prematurely call for cutting back on government spending. There’s still so much work to do to build the better labour market that workers deserve and Canada needs.

We need only look at how quickly businesses — Loblaws, Metro, Sobeys and Walmart, to name a few — clawed back the $2-per-hour pay premium for their “hero” front-line workers to know that.

Or that food-delivery giant Foodora abruptly left Canada rather than face the possibility of a unionized workforce in a position to demand better pay and conditions.

Or that Ontario Premier Doug Ford still doesn’t believe in paid sick leave for everyone. Even after all we’ve learned about how the coronavirus spreads and how many people can’t afford to stay home without pay, Ford still doesn’t get it.

If the mantra of “build back better” means anything, we must revalue low-paid but essential work and tackle the scourge of precarious work, gig economy jobs and temp agencies that leave workers scrambling just to earn minimum wage. We need to legislate paid sick days for all workers (and not just for those directly affected by COVID-19) and dramatically expand affordable childcare so that women aren’t held back.

It’s long past time that our labour laws recognized the current realities of what work is actually like for people on the lower rungs of the economy and the lengths that some businesses will go to undercut worker compensation and protections.

The pandemic has shown how essential much low-paid, undervalued work really is, and revealed that people are working in conditions society should no longer tolerate. Having accepted that better job protections and income supports are necessary in a crisis, we can’t go back to pretending they’re not needed all the time.

Fixing the labour market and ensuring more workers have a chance at a decent job isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s vital to making Canada more resilient to future upheavals, whether that be another wave of COVID-19 or some other new disaster we haven’t yet imagined.

This Labour Day is a time to reflect on lessons learned the hard way through the pandemic and redouble efforts to create a better future for all workers.

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This entry was posted on Monday, September 7th, 2020 at 11:18 am and is filed under Debates. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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