COVID-19:  Universal Health and Economic Security Measures Required

COVID-19: Universal Health and Economic Security Measures Required

The experience of other countries during the covid-19 pandemic has made very clear what government response should be:  

  1. organize mandatory and comprehensive containment and isolation measures;
  2. facilitate compliance by providing universal livelihood supports to all working people.

 In Canada governments at all levels are not following this universal approach. Instead they have been rolling out a patchwork of half-measures full of gaps. When people fall through the cracks in this system, the coronavirus also falls through enabling it to spread and cause greater harm.

This analysis is based on the hundreds of phone/email contacts SAWRO workers have made with the community’s families over the past few days.  People feel their families are being left to fend for themselves in the covid-19 crisis. They are excluded by the narrowness and shallowness of both government health security measures and economic security programs.

This exclusion is a result of government failing to take into account of the situation of workers in the low-paid precarious job sectors where many community people—especially immigrant women—are working.  Government is neither recognizing nor responding to the vulnerabilities of workers employed through precarious work arrangements. People facing great health security challenges and severe threat to their livelihoods are being given very little support.

The failure of government to organize mandatory and comprehensive covid-19 containment and isolation measures has resulted in exposure of precarious workers at their workplaces and on public transit commuting to work. In Ontario the government list of “essential businesses” is far too expansive and  the regulation of workplace protections far too voluntary. They leave employers in many non-crucial enterprises to do as they please.

Numerous reports have been received about predatory employers refusing to follow social distancing and hygiene protocols in the workplace and to provide required personal protective equipment. They are also bullying and intimidating workers who request leave to self-isolate, to care for school age children or to care for seniors. Employers are threatening to manipulate worker access to EI or Canada Emergency Relief Benefit if they leave the job.

Individual workers with insecure employment relationships have difficulty taking protective action—government action is needed:

  •  the number of businesses declared “essential” should be severely restricted to enterprises with crucial pandemic response roles
  • for crucial workplaces which remain open, mandatory protective health measures should be established and robustly enforced
  • power to decide who should have leave from work to self-isolate, care for young children or other family members should be taken entirely out of the hands of employers
  • transportation to work for crucial workers—which is compliant with social distancing guidelines—must be provided

A similar, more universal approach needs to be taken in government covid-19 emergency livelihood supports.  Many community people are fully attached to the work force and are losing earned income as result of the pandemic but are excluded from both extended EI benefits and the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB) program. The only employment available to them are jobs as staffing agency workers, as on call workers, as irregularly scheduled workers in retail and fast food and as misclassified “independent” contractors. Because of their insecure employment, low wages and irregular income they cannot meet the eligibility criteria of these programs—despite the devastating impact the pandemic is having on their earned incomes.

The exclusionary criteria affecting community working people, especially immigrant women include:

  • $5,000 minimum earning requirement for CERB payments
  • requirement that no income is received in qualifying periods
  • requirement that applicant was not unemployed at time of pandemic outbreak
  • exclusion for voluntarily leaving employment

There are multiple ways precariously employed workers can be entangled in these exclusions and not receive emergency benefits. They are left scrambling around looking for work and being forced to accept work in unhealthy situations—instead of focussing on complying with emergency health measures.

The only solution to this problem is government providing livelihood support payments universally available to all working people, regardless of their labour market position. This approach would recognize and respond to the vulnerabilities of precariously employed workers. It would also recognize that during the pandemic crisis ensuring the health and economic security of each individual is necessary for the health and economic security of all.

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