By, Jerry Dias
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed many hard-truths about the state of Canada’s economy in 2020.
The incompetence of our private sector in long-term care homes, for one. The lack of manufacturing capacity to produce critical goods when we need them, another. Generally unhelpful income security programs.
The list goes on.
But there’s a deep fault line in this crisis that runs straight through the world of work.
This crisis has shone a public spotlight on one of the most troubling truths about our economy that requires careful reflection this Labour Day: the relentless devaluation of work.
Our economy has grown larger, the corporate sector has grown richer, yet wages have stagnated, part-time and contract work has proliferated and jobs have grown more precarious. Workers, today, are far less likely to have the protection of a collective agreement than they did a generation ago.
For years, working people have raised alarm over steadily declining work and pay standards in Canada. For the most vulnerable and disadvantaged of us, it’s worse. Significantly higher unemployment rates for workers of colour and indigenous workers. Persistent wage gaps for women.
From farm fields to factories. From transport to telecommunications, and all across the services sector. I hear it every day.
Workers feel expendable.
Jobs are becoming more automatable.
To stay competitive, employers are dampening any expectations for better wages, benefits and pensions.
Then a crisis hits and who steps up?
Frontline workers – clerks and caregivers; food processors and farmhands; technicians and delivery drivers; cleaners; transportation workers; media workers; energy workers; warehouse workers; autoworkers who committed to building safety equipment – all put their health and safety on the line to keep essential goods and services flowing.
We called them COVID heroes, with hashtags and billboards and thank you messages. The truth is these workers did nothing different than they do day-in and day-out. They show up. They work hard. They make our economy function.
And while the world reflected on this over the past months, the past no longer matters. What matters is what lies ahead. What matters is whether we, as a society, can turn a momentary flash of recognition into permanent improvements to wages, work standards, their health and well-being, and economic and social justice for all workers.
I believe, together, we can. Because change happens when workers band together, realize their collective power, and take action. Change happens when workers put their solidarity ahead of self-interest - a power that has consistently changed the course of history.
What’s remarkable is that this power is being exercised all around us right now, catalyzed by events of the past months, including historic protests for racial justice, wildcat strikes by professional athletes and workplace protests over health and safety standards.
As usual, if decision-makers are not going to step up and bring the change that is needed, working people are going to take this fight into our own hands.
Employers and governments should take note. There is too much at stake to let opportunities to fight for greater justice for workers pass.
Over the past week, more than 1,400 Unifor members in Newfoundland have hit picket lines at Loblaw-owned Dominion Stores supermarkets across the province.
Workers, who put everything on the line during this crisis, to keep food on tables and prescriptions filled, despite earning desperately low wages.
These workers cannot accept that Loblaw Co. – Canada’s richest retailer, owned by one of the country’s wealthiest families – would pare back a pandemic pay bump of $2 per hour, even though the risk of infection still exists. They cannot accept a company that has misused low-wage part-time workers in place of full-time jobs, for decades.
They cannot accept this, and nor should they. Not any longer.
And neither should the millions of other frontline workers in Canada who’ve been given far less from their employers than they deserve.
This Labour Day, let’s all remember who does the work of real value in this country.
Let’s remember who has the power.