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COVID-19 shines harsh light on injustices faced by key workers and the elderly

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Image: Makenna Entrikin/Unsplash

There is talk among many Canadians, as well there should be, about a just recovery arising from COVID-19. The pandemic has shone a harsh light upon injustices that have been hiding in plain sight, and there is no excuse now for looking the other way. Here are just three of the more egregious examples:

The elderly and long-term care workers

The pandemic has struck hardest in long-term care facilities, particularly in Ontario and Quebec. More than 80 per cent of the deaths from COVID-19 in Canada have occurred in those residences, and especially in those which are privately-owned.

Provincial governments are responsible for regulating the homes in a way that ensures they are safe. Instead, the operators were given years to make improvements, but did not do so, preferring to lobby instead. In Ontario, the government of Doug Ford has cut back drastically on government safety inspections.

Premier Ford appears shaken by the carnage which has accompanied COVID-19, and promises to do whatever it takes to improve upon the situation. But it was on his watch that home inspections evaporated. It has also come to light that the private LTC sector has now hired as lobbyists some of the people who have worked on Ford's election campaigns.

Workers in the LTC sector have also been victimized. The owners pay them poorly and they often hire people on a part-time basis to avoid paying benefits. That has forced workers to juggle part-time jobs in more than one home, a practice that has had deadly consequences in spreading the virus.

It was Premier Ford who quickly rescinded increases to the minimum wage that had been scheduled by the previous government of Kathleen Wynne. Employer organizations, such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, are always loud in their opposition to increases to the minimum wage wherever they are proposed. Those organizations have much to answer for.

Long-term care should be a service provided under the umbrella of Medicare for the safety and benefit of the elderly and the workers who serve them. Those workers would also benefit if more of them belonged to unions where wages, working conditions and occupational safety are subject to collective bargaining rather than having workers isolated and vulnerable, as is now the case.

Grocery store workers

Grocery store workers were, and remain, on the COVID-19 front lines. People have been shopping for groceries more than ever during the pandemic and the chains have done well.

Some, including Loblaws, Metro and Empire (which owns Sobeys and Safeway) provided workers with a modest wage hike in exchange for working during the pandemic. However, the chains decided recently, in what looks suspiciously like a coordinated move, that they would all revert to paying normal wages, which are often at or near the minimum.

As we know, the virus has not disappeared and there may well be a second wave on the horizon. The workers will continue to be exposed. We can have at least some effect on the behaviour of the chains. We can choose to shop at stores whose workers are unionized, and to speak out in any format available to insist upon justice for them.

Seasonal foreign workers

Canadians have for decades depended upon seasonal foreign workers, most often from Central America and the Caribbean, to plant, tend and harvest our vegetable and fruit crops. Those workers are granted temporary work visas only, even when they return year after year.

Their contracts are with individual employers so they do not have the right to leave a bad situation and seek work elsewhere. They often live in isolated and crowded bunkhouses. In most provinces they do not have the right to unionize and bargain collectively for healthier working conditions and salaries.

The Globe and Mail reports that as of June 21 more than 630 migrant farm workers have been infected with COVID-19 in Ontario alone. Three have died.

Advocates and healthcare workers have for years raised concerns with the federal and provincial governments about conditions involving these foreign workers. The Mexican government threatened to stop them from coming to Canada but has relented following promises that Ottawa will work to improve the situation.

There are a variety of possible remedies. Rigorous and surprise government inspections of workplaces and accommodation are one. Providing readily available health and other services is another. Seasonal foreign workers should also have the right to join unions, even though these workplaces are very difficult to organize.

Finally, there should be a path to permanent residency and citizenship for those workers who wish to pursue it. If they can work here they should be able to live here as fully-fledged members of our society.

To these groups of people treated unjustly, we could easily add others. They include health professionals who have had to work for months during the pandemic without adequate personal protective equipment, and workers having to work in close proximity in meat-packing plants.

We can and must do better for all of these people. That's what a clear majority of Canadians want.

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer and blogger and a former member of Parliament.  

Image: Makenna Entrikin/Unsplash

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