By Hassan Yussuff as published in The Hamilton Spectator
Every year, workers and their families come together on April 28, the National Day of Mourning, to mourn those lost to workplace illness and injuries. This year, Canada’s unions are shining a light on the human cost of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The enduring call to “Mourn the Dead; Fight for the Living” could not be more urgent on this National Day of Mourning. A little more than a year after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 global pandemic, Canada has recorded over 1 million cases of COVID-19 and 23,492 deaths.
This pandemic has exposed employers who value profits over people. COVID-19 is spreading at work. Not just in health care and long-term care settings, but also in factories, farm work and food processing, warehouses, schools, offices and transportation among others. Workers have had to fight for access to effective protective equipment, COVID-safe practices at work, paid sick leave, and respect for their basic health and safety rights.
According to a recent report by the Toronto Star, Ontario is seeing an acceleration of workplace COVID-19 deaths as compared to 2020. In total, the WSIB has recognized 46 deaths that can be linked directly to workplace exposure of the virus since the pandemic began. In the first 10 months of the pandemic, the Board reported 28 COVID-19 deaths. The WSIB has reported 18 deaths in the first three months of 2021 alone – nearly two-thirds of last year’s total.
Workers in Canada have faced impossible choices in this pandemic. Fifty-eight per cent of Canadian workers have no access to paid sick days, according to a report by the Decent Work and Health Network. That number jumps to 70% for low-wage workers making less than $25,000 a year.
Without access to adequate paid sick days, workers have been forced to choose between going to work sick, or not putting food on their own table. This failure puts us all at risk, and is prolonging and deepening the impacts of the pandemic. With more contagious and deadly variants surging and many essential workers still not prioritised to be vaccinated, the vaccine rollout alone will not be enough to stem this wave of the pandemic. Being able to stay home when you are sick is fundamental to reducing workplace exposures and illness. We urge Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial governments to ensure that every worker has seamless access to universal, permanent and adequate paid sick leave.
If we hope to reach the levels of vaccination required for herd immunity, it is critical that we remove all barriers to those most at risk having access to these life-saving vaccines. That includes paid leave so that workers can get their shot, and prioritising those essential workers who cannot stay home.
So far, only two provinces guarantee any annual paid sick days: workers in Quebec have access to two days of paid sick leave, and workers in Prince Edward Island have access to one day of paid sick leave. Workers in the federal jurisdiction are entitled to three paid sick days a year. Here in Ontario, Premier Doug Ford announced this week that he is finally going to provide workers with paid sick time. The details of the plan have yet to be confirmed, and it remains to be seen how easy it will be for workers to access this paid leave.
Every year, approximately 1,000 Canadian workers and more than 2.7 million workers around the world die because of something that happens at work. In 2019, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were 925 accepted workplace fatalities and 271,806 accepted lost time claims in Canada. These numbers don’t yet reflect the losses we are facing at the hands of COVID-19.
On this National Day of Mourning, we call on employers to work with health and safety committees and representatives to ensure safe and healthy working conditions. They must also ensure access to free appropriate and effective personal protective equipment, training and paid sick days so that workers can stay home when they are ill and not risk exposing co-workers and their community.
This pandemic has already cost us all too much. So as we mourn the dead, we must also fight for the living by doing everything we can to protect those around us, and make sure that workers return home safely at the end of each day.
Hassan Yussuff is the President of the Canadian Labour Congress. Follow him on Twitter @Hassan_Yussuff