June 19th, 2020
Front-line workers remain critical to our efforts
With the flurry of activities related to a greater easing of pandemic-related restrictions, it is tempting to think we may have COVID-19 on the run but that’s not the case. We have been successful in our attempts to limit the worst effects of the first wave which is commendable. That doesn’t mean the threat has expired, only that we are better prepared to face the next round which experts tell us will surely arrive. When it does, it is guaranteed that we will rely on front-line workers such as grocery store clerks.
That’s why it’s so surprising and disheartening to learn that Loblaws will be revoking the hourly increase they gave their employees who put themselves in harm’s way to ensure we could buy groceries. For the company, this is shaping up to be a black eye with memories of the bread scandal and the $12 million Loblaws received from tax payers to upgrade their freezers fueling the outrage aimed at owner Galen Weston – one of Canada’s five richest men. The praise he received when he extended the increase has disappeared and social media is full of outrage with people claiming they have spent their last dime in his stores.
Boycott politics can work and are a helpful tool for those who have the choice of exercising the option, but not everybody does. A better solution would be to ensure that people in these jobs and many comparable positions are provided with a living wage, benefits, and paid sick days. It is incredible that New Democrats had to negotiate for the federal government to discuss paid sick days with the provinces when our own public health officials are warning Canadians not to go out in public if they don’t feel well. The idea seemed to have escaped the government, yet offers one of the best tools to halt the spread of disease in general and COVID-19 in particular.
Prior to the pandemic, employees in low-paying jobs were often asked to report to work even if they were sick. Many others couldn’t afford to lose a shift and hid their illness. With paid sick days both scenarios would be reduced. Despite the clear evidence to importance of paid sick days, some premiers have been luke-warm to the idea. It speaks to a lack of respect for people with little economic clout and a dysfunction in our system. Instead of protecting the population, too many in power relent to the wishes of the business community. For a lot of people, that is not how one best represents the population they serve.
A New Democrat led campaign to set the federal minimum wage at $15 an hour was met with similar reluctance. Our economy has become fueled by cheap and disposable labour. Before the pandemic, almost half of all Canadians were $200 away from debt. Many of those are employed in the service industry which some estimates suggest accounts for 75% of all jobs and 78% of our GDP. While not all these jobs are equally precarious, we understand that the constant increase in part-time jobs with no benefits and no sick days had painted us into a corner once the pandemic arrived.
Left with no choice but to support these workers, the government was forced to introduce the Canada Emergency Response Benefit to tide people over. Meanwhile, employers like Galen Weston have only become wealthier as everyday Canadians pick up the slack with their hard-earned tax dollars.
We should remember that employment models, tax structures, and demands placed on employers are arbitrary and can be re-worked in any fashion we choose. The pandemic has proven what critics have been saying for years – that too many employees are undervalued and underpaid. We will be relying on front-line workers again before this is over. It’s never a bad time to say thank you and it’s never a bad time to demand your governments do more to ensure Canadians are better prepared to deal with unexpected financial burdens. That starts with providing a living wage and paid sick days.