Pierre Ducasse CUPE Communications

An interview with CUPE economist, Angella MacEwen

To what extent do you think the COVID-19 pandemic showed how flawed and fragile our system actually is 

Chronic underfunding of health care from the federal government has led to austerity and privatization across Canada, and the impacts of this are particularly clear in long term care. Weak labour legislation that is not effectively enforced allows employers to rely on precarious work, which creates economic and health risks for workers. Most workers did not have job-protected sick leave when the pandemic was declared, and they still don’t have paid sick leave.

Governments have enacted emergency income supports and emergency leaves for workers. What needs to change in the long term to better support workers?

Workers’ health and safety must come first. All workers need to have access to adequate personal protective equipment, safety protocols, the right to refuse unsafe work, and paid job-protected sick leave, not just temporarily, but permanently.

We need to raise the floor for all workers. At all levels of government, we need more active enforcement of existing labour legislation and higher minimum wages. Legislation currently makes precarious work attractive for employers. If legislation required part-time, casual, and sub-contracted workers to have access to the same rate of pay and pro-rated benefits, we could remove some of those incentives and make precarious work more stable for many workers. 

Many of the labour movements’ long term demands for improving Employment Insurance (EI) would also help address the gaps in our income support system, for example by implementing a lower entrance requirement and higher replacement rates. 

There is new appreciation for care work and people see how essential it is. Where do we go from here? 

I think the pandemic has really exposed to many people how care work, including education, is too often undervalued and underpaid.

The pandemic also exposed the gaps in services that come from privatization. Profits are squeezed out of underpaid workers and underserved recipients of care. The gaps in long-term care for both workers and residents have become particularly clear. No one should profit from providing essential care.  

Care work is dominated by women, many racialized, with an increasing reliance on migrant workers. These workers have been labeled heroes for their important work during the pandemic. A much better way to honour them would be by permanently implementing fair wages and better working conditions. 

Looking ahead, what role must the public sector play in a fairer, more sustainable future?  

There is an essential role for the government to provide critical public services and to rebuild public infrastructure. There will be a tendency for governments to do stimulus the same way that we have in the past, focusing on ‘shovel ready’ physical infrastructure projects. But this recession is different. Our response needs to put the most vulnerable in our communities first and recognize the gendered and racialized impacts of the health and economic crisis.

The rate on the Canada 30 Year Government bonds is only 2 per cent, making federal investment in public infrastructure more affordable than ever. Public investment should take into account our other twin crises - climate change and inequality. Public investment in care work, clean energy, energy efficiency retrofits, public transit, and active transportation infrastructure are essential components of a green and equitable recovery.