Column: From the Hill -- For a fairer, safer, healthier society
At this time of year, we mark two days to remember the contribution and sacrifice that workers make for our society–the National Day of Mourning on April 28th and International Workers Day on May 1st.
On the National Day of Mourning we remember those people who died in the course of their work. People who went to work in the morning and didn’t come back to their families at the end of the day.
COVID-19 has taught our society an important lesson—the value of workers we had previously taken for granted—health care workers, care aides at seniors’ homes, grocery store workers, truck drivers, farmers. People who keep us alive through their work and the food and supplies they bring to us.
While it is important to recognize and celebrate these and other essential workers, we must go beyond kind words and noisy demonstrations of support.
Workers have a right to a safe and healthy workplace. And workers have a right to fair wages. We’ve discovered during this pandemic that forcing care aides to work part-time for low wages and without benefits also forces them to work in multiple seniors’ homes to eke out a living. And that is not just unfair to the care aides, it also increases the spread of diseases that can kill both the residents and the workers.
Other sectors have also proved tragically risky for workers during the pandemic. Four taxi drivers working the Pearson International Airport route in Toronto have died due to COVID-19. Workers in meat packing plants in Alberta have suffered the same fate, and others in poultry production plants in BC and oil sands camps in Alberta have become seriously ill while working in clearly unhealthy conditions. The list goes on.
We’ve also learned during this crisis that many workers have very precarious employment with little or no access to the benefits enjoyed by others. When the government initially announced that the unemployment crisis caused by COVID-19 would be dealt with through more rapid access to Employment Insurance, the NDP pointed out that 60 percent of Canadian workers don’t qualify for EI at all. When the government told workers with symptoms to stay home, we quickly found out that most workers don’t have paid sick leave, so they kept going to work to make sure they could pay their bills.
Throughout the pandemic, the government has slowly woken up to the fact that the working world is not what it was like fifty years ago, when everyone had a regular job with a regular paycheck. As massive support packages quickly rolled out for workers and businesses, it was clear that many didn’t qualify for the programs. Seasonal workers, students, artists, and many small businesses were excluded just because they didn’t fit the mold.
When we emerge from this pandemic, the world will have changed. We should start planning now so that Canada can quickly create a more sustainable and resilient economy. We need to seriously re-evaluate our social safety nets so that Canadians can have more confidence that they and their families will be covered in times of extraordinary need. And we need a plan that will diversify our economy so that workers in cyclical resource industries can use their skills in sectors that are expanding rather than contracting.
So, let’s pledge to create a fairer, safer, healthier society where workers are appreciated, kept safe and paid fair wages so that they can go to work and come home at the end of the day to take care of their families.