The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the threads that connect us all. Our health and well-being depend on the health and well-being of everyone else in our communities, our country, and around the world. In the last few months, we’ve seen clearly that when some of us aren’t safe and well-protected, we are all at risk.
The pandemic has also exposed just how frayed and broken our social safety net is. Public services are the lifeline that will pull us through this crisis, but these services and programs have been underfunded, under-resourced, and under attack for decades.
Recent EKOS polling shows people understand the importance of strong public services and the critical role of government in the economy. Nearly three-quarters say they expect a “broad transformation of our society” when the crisis is over, with 70 per cent saying this transformation should focus on our collective health and well-being.
A Broadbent Institute poll also shows widespread support to spend what’s needed to rebuild and expand public services, and to make our economy fairer. There’s a growing consensus that there’s no room for profit in long-term care, or other care work. The pandemic has exposed the failures of privatization, deregulation, and lax enforcement of labour and health and safety laws. As Canada starts rebuilding and recovering, we have an opportunity to reimagine what our economy looks like.
An important part of this is reimagining the rules we use to govern economic activity. These rules must ensure that the needs of people and the environment are the priority, not corporate profits. There is no economy without people, both as workers and as consumers.
Increase workers’ power
Rewriting the rules for workers is an urgent priority. We all rely on essential workers and share a responsibility to ensure they can work in safety, are fairly paid, and are treated with respect.
There are opportunities at all levels of government to improve employment standards and labour laws, and improve enforcement of existing legislation and regulations. Unions have been pushing for years to raise minimum wages, and calling for employers and governments to end ever-increasing reliance on precarious work. Legislation currently makes precarious work attractive for employers, and it’s past time to change that.
Paid, job-protected sick leave is a major issue. Before this pandemic, most non-unionized workers only had access to one or two unpaid sick days, and many had no job-protected leave if they got sick or had to self-isolate. Most provinces have since updated their legislation to extend the duration of unpaid sick leave. But this still leaves workers vulnerable to income loss and employer pressure to work while sick.
Adding to the pressure, families were confronted with the need to take unpaid leave to provide care to children whose child care centres and schools were closed in response to the pandemic. Data from the Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey shows that this burden is falling primarily on women. This highlights the continuing importance of our public education system, and the need for a national child care plan.
Unionized workers have also found it difficult to enforce their health and safety rights, with many workers being asked to return to workplaces they feel are unsafe, or quit, which makes them ineligible for income supports. This is most apparent in low-wage industries and those that rely heavily on migrant labour, such as the food processing industry. Workers need strong and enforceable workplace health and safety protections, and access to personal protective equipment.
Raise the bar for everyone
When the pandemic hit, the immediate prescription was to shut down large parts of our economy and daily life. But that left many workers struggling without the support they needed to follow public health advice and stay home. Unpaid leave isn’t enough to allow workers to stay home. Most Canadian households don’t have enough money saved to cover two weeks without pay, let alone the extended shutdown we’re experiencing. Income support plays an important role stabilizing economic demand in hard-hit communities, and at the same time it helps individuals meet their basic needs.
Over the past 25 years, successive federal governments have cut access to Employment Insurance (EI) and failed to recognize how ill-equipped the program was to provide support for a growing number of precarious workers. Low wage, part-time, temporary and contract workers were deeply affected by the first round of closures and layoffs in March. They are exactly the workers who are least likely to qualify for EI regular benefits.
The emergency benefits introduced by the federal government, including the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), provided over seven million Canadians with emergency supports in April. But many vulnerable workers were still left out: those without enough earnings to qualify for CERB, seasonal workers who don’t qualify for EI, and temp agency workers who are often paid in cash, and have difficulty getting pay stubs. In the long run, we need to reimagine EI so that it supports all workers, and rethink social assistance to provide a decent life for those who are unable to work.
Strengthen public services
Years of austerity and a reliance on private markets to solve problems and deliver services have left us scrambling to respond adequately to the immediate health and economic crises. Public investment must drive the recovery and help us rebuild our economy and our society to be more resilient in the future. The Bank of Canada has lowered interest rates to 0.25 per cent and is acting as a lender by buying bonds directly from federal and provincial governments. The interest rate for 30-year federal government bonds is just two per cent, making federal investment in critical public infrastructure and programs more affordable than ever.
There will be a tendency for governments to do stimulus like they have in the past, focusing on ‘shovel ready’ physical infrastructure projects. This recession is different, affecting women, low-income service workers, racialized workers, and migrant workers much more severely. Investment in the care economy, including health care, child care and social services, will have social and economic returns far higher than the current cost of borrowing, and will create good jobs for the workers who have been hardest hit by this economic crisis. Investment in affordable housing will also help to address pre-existing inequality which has been exacerbated by the economic fallout from the pandemic.
There are already calls for austerity and privatization, including through the federal government’s Canada Infrastructure Bank. But you can’t rebuild by cutting. And privatization will cost more, while delivering less. After the 2008 recession, the federal government removed economic supports too quickly, and focused on cuts and balancing the budget instead of strengthening our safety net. Infrastructure spending prioritized inefficient and expensive P3s, locking municipalities across Canada into low quality projects and growing debt.
We have never experienced an economic disruption like this. But we have experienced times of great change. We don’t know what the next few months and years hold for us. But we know we will emerge better off if we come together and build a society and economy that works for us all. The importance of strong public services, and the value of front-line workers, has never been clearer. Let’s make sure workers and public-sector solutions are at the heart of the recovery.