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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Canadian workers go from heroes to under attack

Updated: Jul 1, 2020

Recent corporate actions belie lofty rhetoric and empty praise.

Sign praising essential workers in South Etobicoke, Toronto

It was not very long ago that the grocery store cashiers and other frontline workers that we forced to work -- deeming them essential -- during the early stages of the capitalist coronavirus in Canada were being hailed as heroes.

People had signs in their windows and business leaders like Galen Weston were singing their praises. Tim Hortons announced that it would release a line of limited-edition "Hero Cups" featuring photos of the "hard-working essential workers and other frontline heroes".

Hope Bagozzi, Chief Marketing Officer of Tim Hortons stirringly noted:

Frontline workers have been the backbone of our communities during these extremely difficult times. Like all Canadians, we want to ensure that we continue to show our gratitude and appreciation by shining a spotlight on them.

Powerful stuff. That photo on a disposable cup will surely shine a special light.

Of course, higher wages, better benefits and improved working conditions might be a more meaningful reward. Especially for the large grocery chains that, unlike Tim Hortons, saw profits soar as long lines of people sought to stock up on essentials and as going out for dinner became impossible.

Yet starting with Loblaw Companies Ltd. on June 13, the major chains began to eliminate the $2 an hour pay premium workers had been receiving as "pandemic pay". This extra pay should have been continued indefinitely as wages in this sector are unacceptably low to begin with.

In fact, Metro Inc. and Empire Co. Ltd. (which owns the Sobeys chain) were so quick to follow the lead of Loblaw in cutting the pay of their workers it was hard not to see it as a coordinated action.

This all prompted the usual toothless outrage of the bourgeois politicians and federally the House of Commons industry committee has voted to haul a variety of executives before them in the summer to explain themselves.

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, a Liberal MP on the committee opined:

I think they owe the Canadian public an answer as to how is it that they announced on the same day they were slashing wages for essential workers in the middle of a pandemic.

The "answer" should be pretty obvious.

While minimum wages are, for the most part, a provincial jurisdiction it is also notable that for all the alleged outrage and hand-wringing not a single provincial government, including the NDP in BC, has chosen to simply raise the minimum wage by $2 an hour.

No doubt they would claim this would harm the businesses that depend on poverty wages and that, unlike the grocery chains, took a financial hit during the pandemic.

And it is true, as the pandemic is highlighting in multiple ways, that many businesses have a business model, profitability and grotesquely large payouts for CEOs and upper management that is based on paying poverty wages to workers.

This is why a variety of right wing politicians and business leaders -- none of whom have any issue with the immense amount of corporate welfare being doled out -- have spoken up against the measly $2000 monthly Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) as if it is somehow luxurious.

In one particularly egregious example, Steve McLellan, CEO of the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce on June 17 called on workers on the benefit to "do your part" and go back to work. In his eyes many people are "faking it" because "they are just kind of comfortable sitting at home on the federal benefit program”.

He and the rest of his bottom-feeding ilk in similar business groups across the country view the CERB as a disincentive to work. That it could only be one if the work that these workers could go back to has terribly low pay is something they leave out of their commentary.

$500 a week, if it was an income at a job for a 40 hour work week would, after all, only amount out to $12.50 an hour. Nowhere in Canada is that a good or living wage. If such a benefit can act as a "disincentive to work" McLellan might want to encourage his member businesses to raise their wages sufficiently enough that they are not immorally low.

It is not just by clawing back pay increases or agitating against government emergency benefits that business is showing its determination to use a crisis yet again to reset the balance in its favour.

Companies where workers are doing their work remotely from home are warning workers that they can expect pay cuts if they live in or move to "less expensive" communities now that they don't have to come into an office.

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, for example, told the company's workers in late May "if you live in a location where the cost of living is dramatically lower, or the cost of labour is lower, then salaries do tend to be somewhat lower in those places".

Various other online companies have said the same thing and a variety of industry hacks and business "journalists" all seem to think this is perfectly fair, even though shutting down centralized workplaces can also reduce costs for the company.

Meanwhile, WestJet showed where other employers are likely to be heading when it announced June 24 that it is eliminating and outsourcing over 3,000 jobs. Trying to make this seem less vicious somehow, the company is claiming that it will prioritize outsourcing the jobs to firms that will rehire some of the laid off workers. It is all obviously a way to cut wages dramatically.

WestJet still needs the workers, it just wants someone else to manage them and pay them less.

That the workers were involved in a unionization attempt by Unifor is unlikely to be a coincidence either.

It is disgraceful and downright un-Canadian that WestJet would punish the workers who made this historic Western Canadian start-up so successful. This is pandemic capitalism at its worst. I find it disturbing that WestJet is using the pandemic to justify its outsourcing scheme as so many of the workers who will lose their jobs were in the process of signing union cards with Unifor.

Not really sure how outsourcing and cutting workers trying to unionize is "un-Canadian" given that Canadian businesses have a very long tradition of doing it, but it is certainly disgraceful.

The situation for agricultural workers in Ontario and nationally is so alarming that Justice for Migrant Workers (J4MW) is calling for the industry to be shutdown "until every workplace is fully sanitized and safety measures are put in place to ensure that the workers are not working under risk to their life and health". Over 1,000 farm workers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 according to the group.

All workers should be paid full salaries during the entire shut down. Workers must be immediately put into hotels and motels and provided individual rooms to prevent the further spread of the pandemic. We must demand an end to the structural and systemic racism that is inherent in the agricultural industry and that manifests itself through both precarious immigration status and a myriad of exclusions that deny agricultural workers fairness in both working and living conditions. No workers should face reprisals for standing for their rights.
Our demands:
A) full access to all benefits, healthcare and application of all labour standards that Canadian workers are entitled to
B) Non-discriminatory testing across the entire community and food chain.
C) all workers tested positive must get the benefits of full quarantine even if they are asymptomatic
D) Permanent residence status to all workers with temporary or undocumented status
Our message to provincial and federal politicians- Stop murdering migrants by your inactions!

Far from a shutdown the Ford government in Ontario is allowing "some people who test positive for COVID-19 but do not have symptoms to return immediately to their workplaces" including in agriculture, which is rather mindboggling.

It is very clear that the hero workers of a few weeks ago are faced with a "new normal" where their employers want wage cuts and clawbacks, outsourcing and the ability to force people to work even if they could get sick or make others sick.

Instead of lofty and hollow rhetoric praising workers, politicians and governments need to act to defend and expand their rights. Given that they are unlikely to do this on their own we need to be pressuring them to do so through all available means now before the corporate counteroffensive has won the day.



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