Seven Ways to Improve Life for Workers in Canada Through and After Covid-19
Updated: Aug 8, 2020
Themes: Policy, Economy, Education and Learning
The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare issues of working in Canada. Many workers (especially those with contract, part time, “gig economy” work) live without benefits, living wages, sick leave, or stable and safe employment, all while navigating systems of structural and systemic racism. The COVID-19 “stay home” orders have exacerbated these problems, with unemployment rising to levels similar to those of the Great Depression (Statistics Canada, 2020). As conditions continue to worsen we are called to find solutions, end suffering, and move forward in rebuilding safer, stronger, and healthier working lives for all of us.
This article aims to contribute to the solution in rebuilding through and post COVID-19. Here are seven ways we can improve life for workers in Canada. These seven items provide opportunities to make a large impact for a large number of people. We will explore these ways of improving work, and think about steps that must be taken in order to create change and improve working life for all of us.
Workers may have to decide between rent payments and their medications. No person working in Canada should have to make that decision.
1. Ensure all employees receive benefits and a living wage
According to Ontario Living Wage, the living wage in Ontario varies from $15.84 - $22.08. Many working people, be they part-time, full-time, contract, or self-employed, do not make a living wage, nor do they receive benefits (Changing Workplace Review, 2017; Stanford, 2008). How are those of us in the most precarious, low paying positions expected to pay for dental care, or prescription drugs for our families? Workers may have to decide between rent payments and their medications. No person working in Canada should have to make that decision.
Workers should all be paid a living wage, and receive benefits (including but not limited to) dental, prescription drugs, and optometry care. We must also provide emergency leave benefits in the form of wages for employees who cannot work though high-risk situations (like a pandemic) if they are high risk individuals or have vital responsibilities at home (e.g. child care, elder care).
Workers in Canada live without a living wage or benefits because their employer cannot or will not provide it, because they are self-employed, and importantly, because the government hasn’t mandated that all workers receive a living wage and benefits. A living wage and benefit plan for all may be best distributed by the federal government, and paid for proportionately by the businesses that employ the worker.
One need only look to Loblaws CEO, Galen G. Weston, who in 2018 earned total compensation of $7,541,156.00 (Canadian Business, 2018). This works out to $3625.55/hour compared to the 14.00/hour minimum wage earned by the Loblaws worker. As I write this article, the $2/hour “COVID-19 essential worker pay raise” that Loblaws provided (a raise that doesn’t even meet the living wage standard of the majority of Ontario) is being ended by Loblaws, lasting only 3 months (CBC, 2020).
2. Ensure all employees receive sick days
Currently, many workers in Canada do not have any paid sick leave (The Changing Workplace, 2017). This has proven extremely dangerous during the pandemic, when folks are choosing between feeding their families or going to work and spreading disease. Providing at least 14 sick days per annum with possibility for extension/additional days should someone fall seriously ill will be essential to improving lives for workers in Canada, allowing people to stay home when they are ill, get better and return to work without putting others in danger. Workers’ right to paid sick leave must be mandated by the government, and could be paid for by large capital enterprises, with government (provincial and federal) assistance provided for small-medium businesses.
If you are an employer concerned about workers who may “take advantage” of sick leave policy, I challenge you to investigate the system that has taught you that people should not have access to paid sick leave. Provided that enough people are employed (we’ll get to that soon!), staffing should not be an issue. Ask yourself: What could be causing workers to take sick leave when they are not ill?
Work to foster a healthier workplace that people want to work at. Provide benefits, security, stability and opportunities for workers to participate in the workplace (we’ll get to this too!), and workers will be less inclined to “abuse” the policies (Foster, 2007). I invite you to imagine a world where all workers can earn a living wage, enjoy benefits that will help keep them well, and stay home when they are sick, keeping their colleagues safe and healthy without fear of reprisal and stress of losing their wage.
3. Ensure all employees do not have to work for more than one long-term care home/high risk facility (LTCF)
Due to the low paying, part-time nature of work in LTCFs (and other high risk facilities), many LTCF staff have no choice but to work at more than one facility (Pederson and Mancini, 2020). This should be permanently abandoned to improve life and safety for not only the worker, but the vulnerable human beings who live in these facilities. This is contingent on these workers making a living wage, receiving benefits, and having access to an excellent sick leave policy at one long-term care home, thereby removing the need to work at more than one facility.
To achieve this we must nationalize LTCFs and welcome them into the Canadian healthcare system, a demand already being made by union members working in these facilities (Harris, 2020).
4. Provide a Guaranteed Basic Income
We understand that many jobs have been, are being, and will continue to be, automated in the years to come (Mason, 2015, p. 252). To support workers through this change, we will need a guaranteed basic income. Following Professor Marcelo Vieta’s direction, I suggest providing a targeted basic income on a per-need basis for people under/unemployed first, and then broaden the income to include all human beings living and working in Canada, depending on their income. According to the School of Public Policy in Saskatchewan, a “targeted basic income is a feasible, efficient, and equitable option for addressing income precarity,” putting money into the hands of those who need it, and who will spend it (Pohler et al., 2020).
Once the pandemic is over, we can discuss how to make this policy permanent. Through taxation of the wealthiest capitalists, we can support workers through automation and unemployment, as well as those providing unpaid labour (volunteering, caring for elders/children). A targeted basic income will also provide opportunity for people to enjoy existing outside of work (Mason, 2015, p. 252-3). While helpful, a targeted basic income will not be enough to live on, so it is essential that workers also gain benefits, living wages, and job security and safety along with their targeted basic income (p. 252).
5. Employ more people for less time
Another issue this crisis has laid bare is unemployment/underemployment. A solution to this (along with a targeted basic income) is to have more people work for less time. This will not only employ more people, but also increase leisure time, reduce stress, and reduce consumption and unemployment (Stanford, p. 186). This will be especially helpful for those whose jobs have been automated, or those who (for whatever reason) only have the capacity to work part-time. This would have to include education and training of workers, and a shift in lifestyle: one where we consume less and enjoy more.
The idea of working less is being explored by New Zealand (Roy, 2020), and Canada hasn’t ruled it out either (The Agenda, 2020). A 2019 study out of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health concluded that current work hours (+40 hours a week) cannot effectively promote the overall progress of society (Liu et al.). In fact, a decrease in work hours would be more conducive to improvements in the workplace and society (Liu et al.). To achieve a consistent solution across the country the government could implement policy to move us toward shorter work weeks, working with employers to increase employment and leisure time.
6. Engage in making a more democratic workplace
Improving the life of workers must include the democratization of workplaces. Workers who have more flexibility, autonomy, and greater agency at work perform better, and have more innovative professional lives (Webb & Cheney, p. 77). When more workers are able to participate in their workplaces, the protections, conditions, and justice improves for workers, and they will have more opportunity to maintain and improve life for their communities through their service (we can see great examples of this in co-operatives!) (Vieta, 2020).
We can work towards more democratic workplaces through the implementation of workers’ self-management strategies, offering flexibility and autonomy for the worker to self-actualize while at work. Paul Bernstein notes that worker participation can be increased via cooperation including (but not limited to) workers initiating criticisms and suggestions though discussions with management, management delegating decision-making to workers, partnerships between worker and managers, and full worker control/self management (1982, p. 58). This will require cooperation between management and workers in order to achieve, but it will move us towards justice for workers.
7. Educate yourself on the systemic injustices in Canada and take action
All people living in Canada, (especially white bodies) need to spend time learning about ongoing settler colonialism and systemic, institutional racism that continues to be perpetrated onto racialized bodies living and working in Canada (Cannon, 2020). We know that racism affects public health outcomes (COVID-19 exemplifies this) and employment opportunities for members of Black and Indigenous communities, as well as people of colour (Public Health Ontario, 2020; Stanford, 2008, p. 167).
We must act in solidarity with those experiencing ongoing injustice, relinquishing power to voices different that our own. We must all do the work to elevate racialized, Black and Indigenous voices to positions of decision-making and working together to change systems of oppression. If we continue to uphold the structures and systems of racism, our country will continue to be racist, and racialized workers will continue to bear the injustices of the current system (Schweickart, 2016). Only through learning about interlocking systems of oppression and the histories of this land can we move forward to improve the lives of Black, racialized and Indigenous workers.
Parting Thoughts, Taking Action
This list is not exhaustive (and it’s far from perfect) but it’s a start. I challenge you to envision a world beyond the one we live in now. A world where you and your fellow human beings in Canada have full benefits, where we all receive a living wage, sick leave. A world where, importantly, we have voices and lived experiences from all communities represented in seats of power and decision making. I challenge you to envision this world, one where we have a democratic voice in the workplace, more security, flexibility, and the ability to spend more of our lives on things that are important to us. If nothing else, I hope this article inspires you to organize and take action. When we are motivated and organized, we can force governments to respond to our demands at the ballot box. Lobby, protest, boycott, and vote to advance these issues. The money is already there: The funds/taxation we would need in order to make these goals a reality could come from the billionaires and corporations who make the majority of the wealth on the backs of those who do the labour. They became rich because of our work. Now it’s time for them to pay that back to society. Working people make up 85% of the population, and united with our labour and our wallets (however thin they may be) we can change the way we work, for the better.
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