COVID-19 shines a light on the relationship between work and health

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Image: Used with permission of the Decent Work and Health Network.

Robyn Beckett is a public health professional and part of the Decent Work and Health Network, a group of health-care workers, public health workers, and community members advocating for better employment standards in Ontario using a health lens. Scott Neigh interviews her about the relationship between work and health, about the network, and about the impacts of COVID-19.

The connection between the work that we do and our health has never been more starkly visible than it is right now. After all, millions of us are not able to work as the COVID-19 pandemic rages, precisely to protect our health and that of everyone else. For many of those who are still working for a wage, the question of precautions to protect health weighs heavily. And where governments continue to allow patently non-essential activities that bring together large numbers of people -- looking at you, pipeline and resource extraction projects -- there has been vocal outrage at the threat to public health this represents.

Even outside of the pandemic context, however, there is a tight relationship between the work that we do and our health. For one thing, for most of us employment determines our income, and income is a major determinant of health. If you have less money, you are less able to afford good food, safe and adequate housing, medical expenses beyond what provincial health insurance covers, and all of the other necessities of life, and that shows up in health outcomes. As well, the specific kind of work that you do might contribute to risk of infection, chemical exposure, physical injury, harms to mental health, and other acute and chronic risks. And there is an extensive body of research showing that precarious employment itself -- that is, working jobs that are some mix of low-wage, temporary, unstable and unpleasant -- leads to greater experience of things like depression, chronic pain, high blood pressure, arthritis and much more, as well as increasing that ultimate indicator, mortality.

The Decent Work and Health Network was founded in 2014, initially as a joint project of a group called Health Providers Against Poverty and of the Fight for $15 and Fairness. The latter is the name of the campaign in Ontario that has been demanding that the provincial minimum wage be raised to $15 an hour and that substantial improvements be made to minimum employment standards.

The network gives health-care providers a way to collectively advocate based on the what they see in their practices in terms of how low wages and poor working conditions harm people's health, and they have been articulating clear health-based rationales for many of the Fight for $15's demands.

In 2017, the groups involved in this fight won a major victory when the provincial Liberal government of the day passed legislation granting not all but many of their demands. Unfortunately, after their election in 2018, Doug Ford and the Ontario Conservatives rolled back many of those improvements, so the network shifted its focus to advocacy based on the harms to health that Ford's changes were causing. More recently, it has started doing primary research, using interviews with precarious workers and health-care providers to document more rigorously the ways in which the 2017 reforms and their rollback in 2018 had an impact on peoples' health, with an eye to using this research in future advocacy.

And now, of course, we're facing the COVID-19 pandemic. In this moment of crisis, being able to stay home when you are sick is more important than ever, but many, many workers in Ontario are not able to do that without losing pay that they desperately need to stay housed and fed, or perhaps even losing their job. The network is advocating that every worker be given permanent access to seven paid sick days per year, and an additional 14 paid sick days during times of public health emergency like the pandemic. As well, many of the demands currently being made by other groups like the Fight for $15 and Fairness and the Migrant Rights Network have important health implications as well, and members of the network are active in supporting those demands.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Used with permission of the Decent Work and Health Network.

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