British Columbia

For Labour Day, B.C. unions reflect on impact of pandemic on workers

Union leaders say COVID-19 has brought new challenges for workers across the province and highlighted long-standing unfairness. But they also say the pandemic has pushed forward some positive changes they hope will remain. 

Province's unions say COVID-19 has posed greater challenges for workers but also provided opportunities

Unions in B.C. say the pandemic has highlighted the importance for workers to organize, especially when it comes to health and safety. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Labour Day has long been a chance to reflect on the status of workers and the inequalities they face at their jobs, and British Columbia's biggest unions say the pandemic has made that work more important than ever. 

Union leaders say COVID-19 has brought new challenges for workers across the province and highlighted long-standing unfairness. But they also say the pandemic has pushed forward some positive changes they hope will remain. 

Sussanne Skidmore, secretary for the B.C. Federation of Labour, says one of the biggest improvements during COVID-19 has been recognition and appreciation for front-line workers from all sectors of the economy.  

"Now we look at how crucial workers are at every level," Skidmore said. "The pandemic is really shining the light on that."

Skidmore says the pandemic has brought forward important changes in workers' compensation and employment standards. Another important step forward, she says, is that workers have recognized the importance of banding together to protect their rights to health and safety on the job.

She hopes that momentum will continue and will outlast the pandemic, especially given that union membership among workers has declined for decades. 

'Largest polarization of wealth in modern history'

Other union leaders say the pandemic has also highlighted some long-standing problems across the workforce.

Paul Finch, treasurer of the B.C. Government Employees' Union, agrees that COVID-19 has brought new recognition for essential workers. But Finch says the past few months have also highlighted disparities between the rich and poor. 

Paul Finch with the BCGEU says the pandemic has laid bare the wealth imbalances across the country, especially in regards to housing. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"We're seeing the largest polarization of wealth in modern history happening right now," Finch said. "We know it's unsustainable."

Finch would like to see wages keep up with the cost of living — especially for essentials like housing. Moving forward, he would like to see the economy be repaired in a way that benefits all members of society, "not simply a wealthy few."

Inequities in health care

For Jennifer Whiteside, secretary-business manager of the Health Employees' Union, the pandemic has laid bare the inequities in the health care system.

Whiteside says care aids, dietary workers and cleaning staff are paid less today than they were during the SARS outbreak. 

"What's been really evident is that, in a time of crisis, we need a very coordinated, stable health-care system in order to protect British Columbians," she said. 

Jennifer Whiteside with the HEU says COVID-19 has shown the importance of treating all health care workers with dignity. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Trevor Davies, secretary-treasurer for the B.C. branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, says the pandemic has shown the importance of public services like health care, and how they have helped so many people cope in the past few months — especially in contrast to the U.S., where those services aren't available for everyone. 

"These public services that we have really do help ensure that the lowest income, the most marginalized in society, have the ability to survive," Davies said.

He hopes the pandemic will help foster long-term appreciation for public services, and the workers who provide them. 

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