As Canada’s economy slowly reopens, unions, think tanks and activists are paying close attention to a shifting labour market as they formulate plans that would ensure workers’ rights are advanced, not regressed.
COVID-19 has left Canada in a definite recession, the full extent of which is still unknown. In moments of crisis — such as a global pandemic paired with a recession — corporations have a tendency to claw back workers’ rights, taking advantage of a public that is otherwise consumed by fear and confusion; a phenomenon laid out in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.
Grocery store retailers have already taken away the $2-an-hour raise they temporarily gave their workers, receiving intense criticism from the public, government, and workers for doing so. And, after being lobbied by the retail sector, Ontario’s government attempted to slash retail workers’ statutory holidays from nine a year to just three, a decision reversed by Premier Doug Ford after receiving pushback from Unifor. And, as companies permanently move their workforce out of offices and into their homes, many workers could see their salaries lowered.
The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered work in Canada, but some see an opportunity to galvanize the labour movement to change work for the better.
Jim Stanford is an economist and director of the Centre for Future Work, and he recently authored the policy paper “10 Ways the COVID-19 Pandemic Must Change Work for Good.”
Some of Stanford’s recommendations focus on keeping workers safe, with the threat of workplace infection in mind, either from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, or from other future pandemics. This includes guaranteeing proper health and safety practices and equipment; reconfiguring the spatial relationships in workplaces; and ensuring that workers have safe and sustainable ways of working from home.
Otherwise, Stanford’s paper focuses on recommendations for improvements to the labour market in general, while still addressing faults in the labour market that were laid bare by the pandemic. These recommendations include ensuring all workers have paid sick leave, a strong income security system, and that the work of essential workers remains valued by the public.
“The workers see that the companies need them, and that society needs them. I hope that will help them understand their collective power a bit better,” said Stanford, speaking primarily of essential service workers.
One of his recommendations to reform the labour market is key to achieving any of his others, he said. In order to achieve any of his proposed changes, the labour movement needs to organize, educate and mobilize workers he said. Looking forward, Stanford suggests ensuring workers have adequate structures of voice, representation and bargaining power to be able to advance their economic interests in future.
“This moment should be a clarion call for workers to put aside their differences and strengthen their collective voice and really push the envelope at a moment when the failure of a previous way of doing things is starkly visible,” he said.
Unifor, too, has released a plan that imagines the recovering economy supporting workers, not CEOs, as Unifor national president Jerry Dias put it.
“The corporations will see this as an opportunity to take away more worker rights and we have to be every bit as diligent to ensure that doesn’t happen,” Dias told rabble.ca.
Unifor’s plan, Build Back Better, is centred around five pillars: the creation of new green jobs; investing in public infrastructure; rebuilding domestic industrial capacity; ensuring that any stimulus packages to corporations come with enforceable rules and conditions; and, ensuring income security for all workers.
A key part of Unifor’s income security pillar is lobbying for reforms and improvements to the federal employment insurance (EI) system, something Stanford’s paper calls for as well.
“It was completely obvious from the moment the pandemic started that EI was a miserable failure at providing people with the minimum income security that they needed to obey public health advice,” said Stanford.
James Griffin, a cook at a Victoria, B.C., hotel and a Unifor member, said there is still a lot of uncertainty about how long workplaces will remain closed or partially open.
“Workers are looking to our EI system to get help to get through this period, but years of cuts have made it harder for people to get access to this benefit, even though we all pay into this program,” he said at the livestreamed announcement of the Build Back Better plan on June 23.
So far, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which has served as a stop-gap for an overburdened EI system, has been extended to October 3.
Laurell Ritchie is the co-chair of an EI working group housed with the Toronto-based Good Jobs for All Coalition, and the pandemic has led her to advocate for EI reform with increased urgency.
“We need to transcend the current system to make it live up to its mandate as an automatic economic stabilizer. If tomorrow we had a climate crisis or another pandemic, we’re back to square one and arguably there [won’t be] the same money for CERB [Canada Emergency Response Benefit] that there [has] been,” she said.
On May 13, Ritchie and her co-chair Winnie Ng wrote to federal Minister of Employment Carla Qualtrough with a list of proposed immediate and transitional measures to be taken to overhaul the EI system. Many of the recommendations focus on making EI benefits less onerous to acquire and more accessible to a range of workers.
Immediate measures include ensuring that refusal to work policies are eased for the duration of the current pandemic, and either removing or reducing the number of hours one needs to have worked in order to qualify for EI. Transitional measures suggested providing a benefit rate of 75 per cent of a worker’s previous earnings as opposed to 55 per cent, extended sick benefits, and an increased duration for EI benefits from 14-45 weeks to 50 weeks.
Marielle Hossack, a spokesperson for Qualtrough’s ministerial office, said that an “immediate emergency benefit outside of existing government program parameters” was needed to respond to the economic conditions created by the pandemic.
“There is no doubt we will have many lessons learned from this crisis and are eager to look at the ways in which we can make our programs and policies more flexible to respond to changing labour markets and unforeseen events,” said Hossack in an emailed statement.
Stanford was critical of the current EI system in his paper, echoing Ritchie’s calls for barriers to EI benefits to be reduced and for rates to be increased. These barriers particularly affect part-time workers, the self-employed, and those engaged in precarious work in the gig economy.
Ritchie said the function of an EI system is to shield workers from having to accept the first job they come across, regardless of the pay, working conditions, or safety.
“If people don’t have choices, if they don’t have income when they’ve lost their employment…they have to take the worst possible jobs and it’s actually an incitement for employers to move even further in the direction of unsafe, low paying jobs with erratic schedules,” said Ritchie.
Ritchie has been advocating for EI reform since the last recession in 2008, but said it’s “absolutely a different conversation now.”
“There was not the same broad understanding of the problems and in particular who was getting left out of the picture in terms of temporary workers or contract positions or part time jobs,” she said.
She said the pandemic conditions and the government’s response to date have broadened public understanding of why people might quit or refuse work for valid reasons. She also said it’s demonstrated what’s actually possible in terms of government response.
In many cases, CERB offers a higher benefit rate than being on EI, raising the question of what’s a reasonable benefit to be able to live off of or support a family while unemployed.
Chelsea Nash is rabble’s labour beat reporter for 2020. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.
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