Post-pandemic, advocates hope to see 'new appreciation,' support for gig workers
World leaders, local advocates call for 'hero' treatment of workers helping others get through COVID-19
The world we'll live in — post-pandemic.
What will change when the COVID-19 pandemic ends? Will our world return to its old ways, or emerge retooled, revised, or perhaps even changed for the better?
In the first part of a new series, CBC Manitoba looks at one industry currently taking a hit: gig workers and the gig economy.
They are store clerks, delivery drivers and security guards who, up until about a month ago, reliably fed, served and protected Manitobans — often for minimum wage, sometimes tips, rarely recognition.
But that was then. This is now — and now includes COVID-19.
"These are the people we're calling heroes today," says Jeff Traeger. "These are the people getting us through COVID. We need to take care of them."
Traeger is union. He's president of the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 832.
But his take on workers' rights is echoed on a much broader scale.
UN on post pandemic
Think Antonio Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations.
"We will face a choice," Guterres said in March 2020, in response to the pandemic. "Most fundamentally, we need to focus on people — low-wage workers, small and medium enterprises, the most vulnerable."
That includes the gig economy — those who work in jobs without contracts, benefits or job security.
Unless they formally identify as "self-employed," many of those workers usually don't have the protection of employment insurance if, for example, a global pandemic puts them out of work — or leaves them with little choice but to work the front lines and risk infection, in order to score a paycheque.
Once this crisis is over, before another one occurs — and there will be another one, history tells us — gig economy workers must be treated a whole lot better, human rights leaders say.
"We can go back to the world as it was before, or deal decisively with the issues that make us all unnecessarily vulnerable to crisis," Guterres said.
World before COVID-19
The world before COVID-19 was this: according to Statistics Canada, about 1.7 million people in this country worked in the gig economy. The vast majority of them did so without any safety net should crisis — like a pandemic — impact their ability to work.
Here in Manitoba, gig workers could work 40 hours a week — full time — and still not make enough to feed the family or make the rent, Traeger says.
"I know of seniors working as security guards, because they can't afford to quit," he said.
Some (think food-delivery service workers) rely predominantly on tips to top up the fees they're paid for each delivery, Traeger says. And if the tips don't come, after factoring fuel costs, vehicle wear and tear, and other expenses, they often do little more than break even.
Others (think restaurant kitchen workers) might make more than minimum wage — but if they're sick, they stay home and lose pay. If they're injured, they've got no health coverage to help mend them.
"If one of my servers falls off her bike and breaks her leg, there's nothing for her," said Talia Syrie. "That's always been a risk."
See to it that [gig workers] don't need a food bank anymore.- Jeff Traeger
Syrie owns The Tallest Poppy, a Winnipeg restaurant which, pre-pandemic, provided work for 25 people.
In March, a kitchen worker had to miss work because of a dental emergency. He lost out on his paycheque. He also had no money to pay for the dental work needed to lose the abscessed tooth.
"That was my wake-up call," Syrie said. "So everyone [at the restaurant] chipped in so he could afford it."
Syrie didn't stop there; the small business owner decided it was time to crunch some numbers to come up with a health plan for her workers.
"That got me thinking, 'I've got to redo my numbers. How do we get basic medical coverage for them? Get cheaper bacon, maybe?'"
Days later, the COVID-19 pandemic infected small business. Overnight, the world for gig workers became even more uncertain.
At The Tallest Poppy, that meant Syrie closed her doors, and 25 others were out of work.
As of April 2020, it's estimated that 10 per cent of all of Manitoba's restaurants have also closed their doors.
In Canada, more than 1 million jobs were lost in March, Statistics Canada said earlier this month — the accommodation and food services sector shrank by almost one-quarter.
Suddenly, those who remained quickly became the faces of our daily life lines — the grocery store clerks, the cab drivers, the warehouse workers.
And while some employers (think Walmart Canada and Maple Leaf Foods) are bumping up pay to some front-line workers, none of those employees will "get rich" out of it, Traeger says. But the company owners might.
"Capitalism is alive and well during COVID-19," he said. "So why not do better than bump up the workers' pay by just a couple of bucks an hour?"
Even better, he says, remember their contribution once the crisis has ended.
"My hope is that there will be this huge swell of public opinion for the people who got us through this," he said. "[We're] not asking that they get rich, but at least see to it that they don't need a food bank anymore."
Stop poverty with money
One post-pandemic option that's generating buzz? Provide every Canadian — across the board — with a guaranteed annual income.
The concept is simple — if people are short of money, give them money.
Instead of social assistance and income assistance, give them a basic, decent living wage to guarantee a roof over their heads.
Food on the table. Access to health care. In good times when they're working (but the salaries are low) and in bad times when they're not working (like when pandemics strike).
A universal basic income is important in the world after.- Jessa Agilo
It's not new. In the 1970s, Dauphin, Man., tested out a guaranteed annual income.
In 2017, Ontario piloted a guaranteed income program, which was intended to run for three years but was cancelled early in 2019.
Now in 2020, in response to the economic devastation left by COVID-19, Spain is looking into it.
Antonio Guterres has suggested governments consider it.
Those in the gig economy also like the sound of it.
Jessa Agilo is the founder of I Lost My Gig Canada, a non-profit advocacy group for thousands of gig workers in the arts and culture sector who are out of work because of the pandemic.
Agilo's group was inspired by one founded in the U.S. following the March 6 cancellation of the legendary South by Southwest Festival in Austin.
Within days of forming I Lost My Gig Canada, more than 5,000 gig workers had signed up.
And for many of them, it's not a temporary blip in pay — a summer's worth of cancelled music festivals could results in artists losing close to half of their annual income, Agilo says.
A guaranteed annual income could be a game-changer.
"This pandemic's making us realize the gaping hole left by the gig economy," Agilo said. "So this is perhaps a good impetus [for a] reality check for gig workers. A universal basic income is important to continue in the world after."
Talia Syrie agrees.
"Let's say you get a flat tire. It costs $200. You're making minimum [wage] and paying rent? You don't have that $200. There's no wiggle room for that. There's no wiggle room for anything," she said.
"That [basic income] cushion would make so much sense."
The UFCW's Traeger thinks it would also send a message to gig workers on the COVID-19 front lines right now.
"You're seeing more and more appreciation for these people. I hope this will translate to a new appreciation in the future."