How the coronavirus pandemic exposed workers’ vulnerability and strength

Labour Day Report by Gregory Beatty

Labour Day’s roots in Canada go back to 1872. The holiday is typically marked by family friendly activities such as picnics and parades.

This year, though, there’s a third “p”: pandemic.

That gives Labour Day 2020 extra meaning, says Charles Smith.

“One thing the pandemic showed, especially when we had to move to lockdown so quickly, was how dependent the market is on human labour,” says Smith, a University of Saskatchewan political scientist.

“Mainstream and business press like to obsess over Wall St. and the money the wealthy pump into the economy as being the motor,” he adds. “But what the pandemic did is peel away the lies about how the economy works. When money has nowhere to go to pay for human labour the economy grinds to a halt.”

With stores, restaurants, bars, arts venues and more all closed, millions of Canadians were suddenly rendered jobless. And the impact on the economy was huge, with Stats Canada figures showing an 11.5 per cent drop in GDP between April and June.

Some Canadians who kept working were able to do so from the relative safety of their home. Others, though, weren’t so fortunate. Healthcare workers and other emergency services personnel fell into that category. But so did workers in other occupations that, until the pandemic struck, wouldn’t have been considered “essential” — such as grocery store clerks, cleaners, delivery drivers and more.

While the public and press applauded them, and some low-wage employers such as Amazon and Loblaws even offered a $2/hour COVID hazard bonus, the money proved to be short-lived.

Once the lockdown ended, companies quickly withdrew the bonus. And right-wing governments began to push aggressively to re-open the economy with limited regard for worker safety.

It’s emblematic of the broader labour struggle, says Smith.

“Amazon was the go-to capitalist business during the pandemic because it was so well suited for the lockdown,” he says.

“But stuff doesn’t just magically show up at your door. There’s a whole bunch of human labour that has to occur before the product you click gets delivered, and many of those workers were highly vulnerable to the virus because they were working in warehouses in close quarters. Then, once reopening started, Amazon scaled back the modest pay increase.”

Simon Enoch, Saskatchewan head of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, agrees that the appreciation workers received early in the pandemic has waned.

“There was this celebration that the workers were allowing a lot of us to hunker down. But really, nothing has changed for them. They are still disproportionately at risk to the virus. So the question is, are we going to recognize what they have to deal with? It just can’t be a brief bonus and slap on the back. We need to have fundamental, sustained [support].”

It’s not just business and government who are at fault, either. That attitude has seeped into the public, as evidenced by COVID deniers’ growing resistance to safety measures meant to protect workers.

“A lot of times we think of workers as background objects that are supposed to deliver whatever services we are there to purchase,” says Enoch. “It’s like we’re entitled not to recognize their humanity because we’re spending money. It’s a ridiculous and unfortunate instinct that some people have. As much as we might celebrate and say how essential the workers are, we still haven’t reckoned with the dignity they deserve.”

Class Conflict

Even before the pandemic, tensions between workers and the capitalist business/government class were high. The pandemic has only added fuel to the fire, says Smith.

“We’ve papered over all kinds of inequalities through precarious work, lack of pensions, a dismal unemployment insurance system which doesn’t cover the vast majority of workers,” says Smith. “It really does show that the modern economy is built on the backs of precarious workers, so-called unskilled workers in the retail and service industry, and that many of these businesses are dependent on paying less than living wages.”

Another gaping hole the pandemic revealed is the plight of temporary foreign workers. Places they often work at — such as care homes, meat plants and farm camps — have all seen major outbreaks.

“It’s been really tragic, the outbreaks that have occurred,” says Smith. “The workers who have been speaking out are so brave because they know they are vulnerable to being deported. Their employers have so much power over them.”

In many instances, says Smith, workers weren’t provided with proper PPE and safe lodgings. “Then we act surprised when outbreaks occur,” he says. “Government promised to increase inspections and hold employers to account. But so far we’ve seen very little, other than vague promises about rethinking the migrant and farm worker program. But we’ve been hearing that rhetoric for 30 years.”

Battle Looming?

While lockdown restrictions are being lifted, the pandemic is far from over. Even though we’re still enjoying summer, coronavirus fatigue is setting in.

What happens as fall and winter arrive, and people start spending more time indoors, with the annual flu bug also likely to be circulating?

Enoch thinks if the pandemic does flare up, it could lead to labour unrest.

“You’re starting to see more worker militancy around the right to refuse unsafe work and a reluctance to return to certain work environments if precautions aren’t put in place,” he says. “There is a sense that workers are starting to recognize they do have some power and agency, so I think there’s definitely a battle coming, and the question is who is going to win.”

Already, we’ve seen major tension over “plans” by provincial governments to reopen schools — not just with teachers and other school staff either, but also parents concerned about the health of their children and families.

“One of the reasons right-wing governments are keen to rush back to school is because they see it as a free form of childcare,” Smith says. “They’re being told by their employer allies that they need people at work. Without childcare, that’s much harder to do. But people are saying ‘I’m not willing to risk my family’s health simply because you want to rush back to work.’”

Concerns like that exist across the Canadian economy, and if we expect workers to do their jobs in the months to come they need to be addressed, says Enoch.

“As soon as you have a sniffle, you should be getting a test or trying to self-quarantine. But unless you’ve collectively bargained for them, most people don’t have paid sick days. So how is this going to work, where we want people to self-isolate if they have symptoms but we don’t give them the means to do it?

“We also need rapid testing so people can have the result in one or two days,” says Enoch. “If you’re waiting seven or more days of unpaid time, people can’t afford that. When they get that tickle in their throat or runny nose, they might say ‘You know what, it’s probably not COVID’ and go in anyways. So it will be counter-productive to controlling the pandemic.”


Saskatchewan (Cough) Votes

While the U.S. election is stealing most of the thunder, Saskatchewan has a provincial election on Oct. 26. And depending on how the pandemic plays out, Simon Enoch thinks worker safety could be an issue.

“We’re in an unprecedented time, and frontline workers are going to be the canary in the coalmines for the rest of us,” he says. “The party who can best respond to those concerns quickly and effectively will show themselves to be effective leaders.”

Since the pandemic hit in March, Enoch thinks the Ryan Meili-led NDP Opposition have performed well.

“For the first few weeks, it seemed as if the government was playing by the NDP playbook,” says Enoch. “The NDP would say ‘We have to do this.’ The government would stall and say ‘No, we can’t do that’. But a few days later they would quietly adopt the proposal. So the NDP has been able to drag the government kicking and screaming to adopt even the most minimal responses to the pandemic.”

The Saskatchewan Party recently handed the NDP more ammunition with its “plan” to reopen schools. Pretty much business as usual with a promise to monitor the situation and introduce further restrictions should outbreaks occur.

“I can’t speak to what internal discussion the Sask. Party had,” says Enoch. “But it seems that their plan was to download everything to the school boards so they wouldn’t have to enforce any province-wide rules, such as a mandatory mask policy, that might be met with pushback or come back to haunt them in the election.”

Many countries that have tried to restart classes have experienced outbreaks. Compounding the problem here is that the Sask. Party didn’t provide any new money to school boards to keep students and staff safe.

A recent $75 million injection by the federal Liberal government helped ease some of the burden, but the Sask. Party inaction is still telling, says Charles Smith.

“For parents, this is a non-partisan issue. They don’t care which party is in power, they just want schools to be as safe as possible. Yet the priorities in Saskatchewan weren’t about safety.”

When the pandemic struck, says Smith, the government was quick to announce support for businesses. In the June budget, it committed to invest in highways and other infrastructure to stimulate the economy.

“While that’s important for long-term stability, who benefits from that?” Smith asks. “It’s the construction sector. The $4 billion irrigation project is another example. I don’t know how much of that is coming from the feds and how long it’s going to be stretched over, but it’s a lot of money, and surely some of it could’ve been delayed and the money diverted.”

Had the government put money toward safeguarding schools, the construction industry still would have benefitted, Smith argues.

“Imagine if the government gave money to the industry in June to retrofit schools so you could have smaller class sizes and better ventilation. You would still be stimulating construction, but you’d be making schools better and safer for years to come. That’s a real stimulus package where you’re putting the safety of children and teachers first. How is that not a better solution?” /GB