KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Imagine waking up for work realizing that what you do today is worth less than yesterday. That’s the experience of Loblaw and Sobeys grocery store workers across the country who have seen their wages clawed back 15% despite remaining on the front lines of a pandemic.
About 50 people rallied at the Quinpool Road Superstore in Halifax against the elimination of a ‘hero pay’ program amid a spike in profits for grocery chains during the pandemic.
Larry Haiven, a retired professor from Saint Mary’s University, helped organize the demonstration with the workplace human rights group Equity Watch.
“When we found out that they had cut the pandemic pay, the so-called ‘hero pay’, we were dismayed and we thought there’s got to be people out there as angry as we are, and I think that’s so,” said Haiven. “We should be encouraging and mandating employers to pay their workers better. We should have at least a $15 minimum wage.”
Just before minimum wage increased by $1/hr in Nova Scotia on April 1, major grocery chains announced a ‘hero pay’ wage increase for grocery workers who remained essential employees throughout the lockdown. The call for raises grew from the fact that low-income workers do much of the essential work needed to keep a community going, for well below a living wage.
While many lauded the move by grocery chain executives, the increase disappeared only three months later, clawing back Nova Scotia employees near the new minimum wage line. All this suggests positive public relations followed by record profits may have been the plan all along for executives.
However, it’s deceiving to call it a ‘hero pay’, it’s actually a ‘hazard pay’, and that hazard hasn’t gone away.
In a unanimous decision, the House of Commons industry committee is calling grocery executives to testify on the hill about their decision to cut employee wages all on the same day.
“Covid-19 has not only shed light on but has exacerbated pre-existing issues of enormous income inequity in Nova Scotia,” labour activist and Nova Scotia Advocate author Lisa Cameron told demonstrators, calling on Premier Stephen McNeil to take action to protect the wages of workers and rights in the workplace across the province.
“Trying to cut workers wages during this time has proven what many of us have already known: that private corporations cannot be trusted to treat their workers with respect and do the right thing,” said Cameron.
A 2016 report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) determined a living wage in Halifax is $19.17, far from the $12.55 minimum wage we have in place now.
“Why is it that we can spend $271 a day to keep people in prison in this province and we can’t give people a couple of hundred extra dollars a month to get medication. That says it all,” poet and educator El Jones told the crowd, reminding everyone municipal elections are this fall.
NSNDP Leader and Halifax-Chebucto MLA Gary Burrill was among the crowd. He called the elimination of the ‘hero pay’ program “just point-blank gross”, pointing to a growing economic disparity between the owners of major grocery chains and the people who actually do the work.
“I am incensed to think that in a time when the grocery business during the pandemic has actually seen their revenues increase, we see the companies turning to take away pandemic pay of the essential workers who we’ve been counting on so much,” said Burrill.
A press release for the event describes Equity Watch as a human rights organization that campaigns for employment equity and against bullying, harassment, and discrimination in Nova Scotia workplaces.
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