Why Canada's low-paid, precariously employed essential workers need a better deal
Pandemic highlighted unstable work conditions of many of the workers whom Canadians rely upon most
Hong had been working at a commercial laundry in the Greater Toronto Area for nearly a decade when the pandemic hit.
The company provided masks, gowns and eye protection for its approximately 100 employers, he said. So while he hauled 18-kilogram bags of linens for $14.75 an hour, it was possible to maintain a reasonable distance from others, said Hong, whose last name CBC Radio has agreed to withhold in order to protect his job security.
But in the lunchroom on New Year's Day, Hong sat with two colleagues, including his good friend, whom he refers to as Mr. Wang for the purpose of telling his story. Hong said around 20 workers were packed in a small break room that has an area around 30 square metres.
Mr. Wang was not feeling well, said Hong, speaking through a CBC/Radio-Canada Mandarin interpreter. "He got a headache, and he was coughing, but he thought that was allergies."
But because his wife wasn't working at the time, Mr. Wang told Hong and his other colleague he couldn't afford the unpaid day off work. He was worse the next day, and on the third day, he had to stay at home. Though Hong didn't know it at the time, Mr. Wang was soon rushed to hospital, where he tested positive for COVID-19. He succumbed to the illness in February, one month before he was eligible to retire.
Meanwhile, both Hong and the other colleague who had eaten lunch together also tested positive. His colleague recovered, but Hong, who is in his 60s, developed post-COVID symptoms — including shortness of breath, fatigue, brain fog and severely swollen legs. Against his doctor's wishes, he went back to work on Jan. 30 when his two weeks of Canada recovery sickness benefits (CRSB) had run out. (The CRSB has since been expanded to cover up to four weeks.)
Labour advocates say essential workers — from warehouse workers, to grocery store employees to caregivers in long-term care homes — have borne the brunt of the pandemic, and that they're owed a future with higher wages and better worker protections.
LISTEN | Labour experts describe what needs to happen to give essential workers a better future:
That's going to mean reforming provincial and territorial labour codes to address the problem of a mostly racialized work force that's paid too little, has poor job security and doesn't usually have paid sick leave, as well as holding big corporations to account, they say.
"I do believe that what the crisis has revealed is how inadequate our labour codes are across the country in protecting workers, and more importantly, the most vulnerable workers," said Hassan Yussuff, who has just retired as president of the Canadian Labour Congress, a role he held since 2014.
"For the first time, I think Canadians got to see … more vividly that the people who were on the front lines and who were keeping the country going — ensuring they had groceries, their delivery was met, and all the other needs, too — was racialized to large extent," he told The Sunday Magazine guest host David Common. "But also what it revealed is how vulnerable these individuals are."
Before the pandemic, most Canadians didn't realize how "many people [who] go to work day in and day out across this country don't have paid sick days, when they need to go to the doctor to take care of their needs," he said.
People in areas such as Brampton and Scarborough in Ontario suffered disproportionately during the pandemic, with higher rates of infection, hospitalization and deaths than most of the rest of the country. That's largely because these neighbourhoods are home to many people whose essential jobs in warehouses, factories and other settings make physical distancing difficult. Complicating matters, missing work because of symptoms could mean falling short on the rent or even losing their job.
One of the challenges is that labour law is the jurisdiction of each province and territory, so there's no one governing body that can pass legislation that will secure sick pay and a more humane minimum wage for all Canadians.
However, in a statement to CBC Radio, Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) said the federal, provincial and territorial labour ministers have met virtually throughout the pandemic and agree they must "work together on these issues for the benefit of all Canadian workers."
It also said that — in addition to COVID-specific benefits like CRSB — the federal government introduced changes in the last budget that affect low-income employees in federally regulated industries such as airline baggage handlers, truckers and bank tellers. These include extended job-protected leave for illness, as well as a minimum wage of $15, regardless of the equivalent in the province or territory where they reside.
"This will directly benefit over 26,000 workers who currently make less than $15 per hour in the federally regulated private sector," the statement said.
On Jan. 1, new rules also came into effect to crack down on misclassification of employees in federally regulated industries — for example, treating people who make the food for airlines as contractors when they really should be full-time employees.
But that still leaves the vast majority of Canadians in low-income, precarious jobs hoping for better wages and job protections to come from their own provinces and territories.
Hong said he wants to tell Ontario Premier Doug Ford that the province's temporary sick leave pay, set to expire Sept. 25, should continue indefinitely. The Ontario COVID-19 worker income protection benefit provides up to three days of sick pay, which some have called insufficient for recovering from COVID; so far the province has not indicated any plans to extend the program.
In addition to lobbying their governments, ordinary citizens can help address the problem by calling on big corporations to do better for their staff, said Deena Ladd, executive director of the Workers' Action Centre in Toronto, an advocacy organization for workers in low-paid, unstable and precarious work that helped Hong make two successful claims through the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.
It's the larger corporations that have made a hell of a lot of money, [that] are not doing what they need to do- Deena Ladd, Workers' Action Centre
"In some ways, what we've seen is that small businesses have really stepped up and have really improved their wages and working conditions. But it's the larger corporations that have made a hell of a lot of money, [that] are not doing what they need to do," Ladd said.
"We really need to push back on the larger corporations, and say you have a responsibility as a corporate citizen to ensure that your workers are healthy, and they deserve an increase in their salary. And some of that profit that you've made off from this pandemic shouldn't be going to your shareholders; it should be going to your workers."
Small businesses need to be considered, too
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business cautions that policy decisions on things like employer-funded sick leave or other programs funded through payroll taxes should be made with small businesses in mind as well, many of which are barely hanging on after enduring long closures.
"[If] they don't provide sick days, it's not because they're necessarily evil people, because it's something that's more informal, potentially, at a small business … or [because] it's more difficult for them to provide that extra pay, especially during a pandemic," said Corinne Pohlmann, senior vice-president of national affairs.
But legislation that applies to large companies usually applies to small companies, too, she said. One effect is that small retailers, for example, can't easily recoup new costs from customers without losing business to giants like Amazon and Walmart. "It's harder to increase your pricing when your massive competitors are able to get everything made in another country that maybe has lower labour costs."
But until legislative change comes about, essential workers have little choice but to unionize, said Ladd.
"Thousands of workers in these jobs organized before the pandemic. And what we've seen during the pandemic [is] that people had nothing left to lose," said Ladd. "They realized that if they don't speak out, if they don't organize, if we don't talk about what workers need, nothing is actually going to change."
She said the Workers' Action Centre has had an approximately 35 per cent increase in membership over the pandemic and members say they feel like they just can't go through another crisis like the one they've just endured, with the illness, death, stress and financial hardships it's brought.
In Hong's case, though his doctor wrote him a note shortly after he returned to work at the end of January asking for a modified work assignment that would allow him to stay off his feet, he said no position like that existed. Hong feared that if he took Employment Insurance-funded sick leave, he'd probably lose his job. CBC Radio has seen a copy of the doctor's note and most recent WSIB decision.
But he stopped working on March 20 when his doctor warned him he could no longer continue to put in long hours due to the post-COVID swelling in his legs, said Hong. A friend told him about the Workers' Action Centre, and there he got help navigating the WSIB system and the forms that needed to be filled out in English. Though he says he's not well enough to return yet, he's recouped some lost wages through that process, and said the help came when he was at his lowest, most hopeless point in the pandemic.
Speaking through the translator, Hong said he was motivated to share his story in order to let more workers, many of whom also struggle with language barriers, know they can get this kind of help.
Hassan Yussuff and Deena Ladd interviews produced by Chris Wodskou. Mandarin translation provided by Yan Liang.