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‘It took the pandemic to shake us up’: What COVID-19 has taught us about the nature of the way we work, and what we must do to fix it for the safety and betterment of us all

‘It took the pandemic to shake us up’: What COVID-19 has taught us about the nature of the way we work, and what we must do to fix it for the safety and betterment of us all
Business
Work as we know it must be revamped to ensure safer workplaces and a successful rebound for the economy, or Canada’s recovery will be “derailed again and again.”

In a report released Wednesday, economist Jim Stanford highlights 10 ways that work must change “for the good” as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic , exploring areas including paid sick leave, precarious employment, income security and working safely.

“We’re all longing to get back to normal, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that some of the ways we were organizing work before the pandemic made things worse,” Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work, told the Star in an interview.

“At this moment, we absolutely have to pay some attention to improving how work occurs. Otherwise, we’re definitely going to heighten the likelihood of infection and other cataclysms down the road.”

The report is part of the PowerShare project — a partnership between the Centre for Future Work, the Atkinson Foundation and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives — that is exploring “workers’ collective voice and agency” amid the changing nature of work.

“Our ability to rebuild is ultimately limited only by our collective ability to work and produce,” the report states. “That capacity to work, not ‘money,’ is the only thing limiting what we can do to repair infrastructure and facilities, strengthen services and restart production and incomes.

“So imagining a better, safer world of work after the pandemic is vital to our success in overcoming the pandemic — and preparing for the next one.”

Stanford says there now seems to be more consensus around some of those areas, particularly paid sick leave for workers, pointing to a recent statement from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that the government was in talks with the provinces about bringing in 10 paid sick days for workers.

Only two provinces, Quebec and Prince Edward Island, have some paid sick day provisions for qualifying workers, according to Stanford’s report, which also highlighted that one of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s first legislative acts in 2018 was to abolish the two paid sick days brought in by the previous Liberal government.

Stanford said any discussion around paid sick days and other structural changes to work must include part-time workers, gig workers and contractors.

Aside from long-term-care homes, “other workplaces were the biggest source of infection, and I think that employers and regulators were very slow to respond to what should have been pretty obvious risks. Any time you’re in close proximity with other workers and customers, you’re obviously in danger,” Stanford told the Star.

He argues those in authority were too slow in ensuring that workers such as taxi drivers, meat-packing plant employees and workers in oilsands camps were protected.

“Now I think there’s greater sensitivity, and if we put the right rules in place and the right oversight, then I think we have a chance at making workplaces a lot safer on infection,” he said.

And those workplaces are going to need more than just hand sanitizer and Plexiglas, Stanford said; they’ll also need workers who are trained, knowledgeable and powerful to demand safer workplaces, and inspectors and regulators to ensure that they are indeed safe.

“It is no longer a question just of protecting the lives of people working in those facilities — although that is abundant motive for vigorous health and safety protections,” says the report. “Now we understand that the health of the whole community depends on effective prevention and control of infections in all workplaces, in any industry.”

The idea of the “powerful” worker is tied in with Stanford’s 10th area in need of change: ensuring workers have a voice and bargaining power. It’s an area where he can envision some pushback.

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“In their public relations and advertising, lots of employers said we’re all in this together thanks to our heroes on the front lines, but as things get back to business, the temptation will be very strong for employers to figure out how they can shave a little bit more off the top,” Stanford said in his interview.

“So they’re going to be focused on trying to repair their bottom line, but we have to make sure that isn’t done while forgetting the important lessons of this pandemic, which is people doing even the most humble jobs in society — the cleaners, the care aides and the retail clerks — actually have a critical role in public health and public safety, and we have to recognize that and start to value that properly.”

His report states that by international standards, Canada has a relatively strong union movement, but at the same time these structures haven’t been able to successfully address challenges brought on by the changing nature of work, such as those in precarious work situations. He also highlights that the strength of unions and collective bargaining “has eroded” in Canada’s private sector in recent years.

“A key ingredient in building a better future for work after the COVID-19 pandemic must be a stronger role for mechanisms of voice, representation and bargaining power for workers in all industries and all statuses,” says the report.

“Only by empowering Canadian workers to recognize the risks (both epidemiological and economic) of working in an infectious world, and then respond to those risks in informed, ambitious and collective ways, can we ensure those risks will be taken seriously and meaningfully addressed.”

It’s going to take an “immense, sustained rebuilding program” over a number of years for Canada to bounce back from its current level of unemployment, Stanford said.

While Statistics Canada’s official unemployment rate for April was 13 per cent, Stanford says once you take into account the many people out of work who don’t meet StatCan’s criteria for being unemployed, the rate would be closer to 33 per cent — which he describes as “Depression-level unemployment.”

The report outlines that among Canadians who lost most or all of their work, those most impacted include people between the ages of 15-24 and those in temporary, part-time and low-wage jobs.

The report found that just one per cent of people who earn $48 an hour or more lost most or all of their work, while more than half of those earning $16 an hour or less lost most or all of their work.

“As usual in any recession, the people who are the hardest hit are the people who can least afford it,” Stanford told the Star. “When we assembled the numbers here on who lost their work and who didn’t, the overlap with precarious work, low-wage work, women and racialized communities was absolutely stunning.”

He said permanent government initiatives similar to those implemented as a result of the pandemic — such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which provides $2,000 a month to people out of work who qualify — are needed in order for all workers to have income security and to recognize that the old employment insurance system failed to capture many workers who didn’t qualify, such as contractors and gig workers.

“We need a better level of benefits, and I think even more importantly we need more universal coverage for the benefits,” Stanford said. “This in a way is a recognition of how the labour market has changed over the last generation. We knew that was happening, we knew there were problems associated with it, but it took the pandemic to kind of shake us up and say, ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t how we should be doing it.’ ”
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