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Danny Cavanagh: Will we remember them after COVID-19?

No worker should be left behind. That was the message from our Prime Minister when this started just three weeks ago. We know we must all do our part to flatten the curve. But the government must take care of workers who have lost their income, are facing a layoff, can’t find childcare or are afraid to work in unprotected workplaces. 

Provincial governments across Canada have been quickly responding to the reality of COVID-19, taking unprecedented measures to contain its spread and mitigate the impact on the economy and its citizens. Not everyone can stay home and use social distancing; health care workers are on the front-line dealing with containment, testing and treatment of those who have contracted the virus. Thanks to all of them.

Meanwhile, others are working to keep our houses warm, the lights on, our water flowing, our mail delivered, our garbage collected and our citizens and our communities safe. Others provide emergency services, paramedics, fire and police. Public sector workers are heroically working around-the-clock to keep our communities and us safe, all at significant risk to their health and safety,  There can be no doubt about the importance of quality public services, especially in light of extraordinary times like this.

Yet, there is another group of workers who we depend upon for our well-being.  These people work in retail and food production, clean our workplaces and public buildings and transport us, our food and other goods. They have historically been undervalued. Now, their work is called “essential,” yet they are not provided with the essential protection that all workers need and deserve.  Most are low paid, with limited benefits, no paid sick days and no pensions. Many don’t work regular hours, and the vast majority do not belong to a union. They may be temporary part-time workers, contract workers, workers who work in precarious employment or gig workers. They are vulnerable workers and they are heroes too!

Even though their work is essential, they may not qualify for regular or sick EI benefits, and they cannot quit their jobs. They will not be eligible for the federal government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and, by remaining at work, may make less than they could on the CERB over the next 16 weeks. With COVID-19, their work has been intensified and increased, but not their wages. They face an elevated risk of on-the-job infection daily and many work daily without minimal protective equipment.

They want to know what happens if they get sick? They are scared at work, scared at home, and scared to raise issues when their employer does not follow the rules set out by public health or government officials. They need their jobs.  Although every worker has the legal right to refuse unsafe work, many workers, especially those without a union, are afraid of risking their careers by speaking out.

It is time for our government to act fast and address these real concerns for thousands of workers.

All workers need to make a living wage and have paid sick days. They need predictability in their schedules, guaranteed minimum hours, and to be afforded the same health and safety protections as other workers. We have specifically asked the provincial government for amendments to labour laws to include a minimum of seven days of paid sick days, with an additional 14 days of paid emergency leave days for all workers.

Remember that such legislative changes come with little or no cost to the government. We need emergency funding for all workers who are without income, either directly or indirectly, due to COVID-19. Equally important, these essential workers need to have adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and the proper safety training on any new products that they are using in the workplace. Most importantly, the government needs to fix the labour legislation so workers can more readily join a union.

This pandemic has shone a light on the lack of concrete protections for these workers. COVID-19 impacts have and will continue to transform labour markets. How that happens is absolutely up to us. Governments have and will, in the coming days and weeks, understand the importance of “made in Canada” on products.  Let’s hope big business will as well.

Will we remember the heroes who looked after us and the importance of decent wages, benefits and working conditions? As a Federation, we work hard every day for all workers and their families. We need Governments to do the same. Let’s hope the silver lining from all of this, is that we will emerge as a healthier, more caring society, one that truly leaves no one behind.

Danny Cavanagh is president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour

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