COVID-19 has exposed wide gaps in Canada’s social-safety net

April 9, 2020

By Hassan Yussuff, as published in The Globe and Mail

Across the country, Canadians are stepping up even as the world feels as though it’s turning upside-down.

We can see, perhaps now more than ever, how critical it is for governments to support and strengthen our society as a whole. That includes ensuring that all workers and the most vulnerable are treated fairly and compensated properly for their work.

Some of our society’s most undervalued and least-respected jobs have proven to be among the most vital, including the roles of cleaners, home-care workers, grocery-store clerks, service workers, those ensuring supply chains keep moving and many more. A number of these workers are paid minimum wage or slightly more, have few benefits, if any, and are often worried about the precarity of their jobs and the lack of a social-safety net should they find themselves unemployed.

It is these vulnerable workers who continue to provide essential services, even as they shoulder the personal risk of COVID-19. Last week, grocery-store worker Keith Saunders died after being infected with the disease. “He wore his heart on his sleeve,” his wife, Katy, wrote on social media, adding that her husband was “extremely dedicated to his job and coworkers. But never was too busy to help anyone and everyone.”

We owe an incredible debt of gratitude to Mr. Saunders and his family, and to all those who are committed to fulfilling their duties at a time of great anxiety and uncertainty.

This is what we need to focus on as we move towards recovery – ensuring that all workers are paid decent wages, have basic benefits, are entitled to paid sick leave and are able to take reasonable time off work to care for loved ones if a medical or personal emergency occurs.

Furthermore, this pandemic has demonstrated that far too many people in this country have been barely scraping by for decades as wages have failed to catch up with the rising cost of living and social supports are woefully lacking.

We now know that more than a million people lost their jobs in March, but even these numbers understate the extent of deterioration in the job market. We know from the continued growth in EI claims that unemployment almost certainly shot higher still in the final full week of March, as more businesses closed and governments took further steps to contain new infections.

Our employment-insurance system has suffered from reductions in benefits and restrictions to access, despite urgent warnings from unions and workers’ advocates. As a result, our EI program was unprepared for an economic downturn.

This pandemic has shone an unflattering light on how austerity measures have led to fewer investments in supporting individuals and families – measures that would have helped cushion the blow that many people in Canada are now feeling.

Governing by austerity has only ever benefited the wealthiest. In times of crisis, corporations cannot fully come to the aid of those who are struggling – it’s up to governments to do that.

While governments across the country have rushed to respond to this crisis by investing in social programs and financial assistance, when we reach the other side of COVID-19 those social programs must stay in place – societal inequities that existed before this crisis won’t disappear on their own.

Canadians are now fully appreciating our public health-care system, despite its obvious challenges, as we watch the havoc being wrought in the United States by its inadequate and unequal health-care system. By contrast, Canada must maintain and augment its current increases to health-care spending.

As for the current economic crisis, no one is surprised by Ottawa’s plan to support businesses now hurting. Yet, it’s vital that conditions be applied to any government bailout to industry. We need to find ways to ensure businesses retain staff as they accept public funds, including the recently announced 75-per-cent wage subsidy.

We’ve seen enough examples in the past of businesses and corporations taking public funds meant to bolster their viability, and then suddenly closing up shop, leaving workers in the lurch. Having staff remain committed to their employers will help support an efficient recovery once the public-health crisis lifts.

As we enter into even more uncertainty in the days, weeks, and months ahead, Canada’s unions will continue to advocate for the protection and dignity of all workers.

Painful though it is, we have a meaningful opportunity to move towards real social progress. Let’s take it.

Hassan Yussuff is the president of the Canadian Labour Congress. Follow him on Twitter @Hassan_Yussuff

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