A Labour Day like no other

Usually the streets would be lined with thousands of workers and their families walking in solidarity in honour of Labour Day, but parades are yet another casualty of COVID-19. 

Instead, workers are taking their solidarity actions online, calling for a just recovery for all. A just recovery is crucial because COVID-19 is exacerbating inequities that existed long before we found ourselves living in a global pandemic.

The most recent Labour Force Survey tells it all. While Canada’s overall employment rate has almost bounced back to February levels (before COVID-19 halted the economy), a lot of workers are still being left behind in the recovery:

  • The return to pre-pandemic levels of employment has been slower for workers in low-wage service sectors like food, accommodation, and retail.
  • The return to pre-pandemic levels of employment for women continues to be outpaced by men.
  • Employment recovery to pre-pandemic levels for Indigenous peoples continues to fall behind non-Indigenous peoples.
  • Employment recovery to pre-pandemic levels for racialized workers continues to fall behind white workers and unemployment remains high particularly for Arab, Black, and Southeast Asian Canadians.
  • Employment recovery to pre-pandemic levels for youth (aged 15-24) lags employment recovery for core-age workers.

Women—especially single mothers—are in a double bind because they can’t return to the paid labour market unless they can access affordable child care. And COVID-19 has placed unprecedented pressures on an already under-resourced child care system. 

This requires a national action plan as part of a just recovery, otherwise the gender income inequality gap will continue to grow and women’s poverty will deepen.

Making it easier for workers to organize is also essential to a just recovery because unions have historically been a great equalizer in Canada, fighting for all workers’ rights. It’s essential both to address the heightened inequality arising from the pandemic and the pressing need for better health and safety protections for workers.

Because so many workers are falling behind due to COVID-19’s impact on the economy—especially racialized, Indigenous, women, people with disabilities, and young Canadians—there is a pressing need for an invigorated, strong labour movement. 

The need for workers to be able to assert their rights in the workplace has literally become a matter of life and death. We’ve seen the devastating and challenging impact of COVID-19 on workers in health care settings, including long-term care facilities, in meat packing plants, and in migrant farm work.

Across Canada there is a growing call for increased paid sick days for all workers—all the more necessary in the middle of a pandemic. No worker should have to choose between going to work sick and putting food on the table. 

And everywhere in Canada, the provincially mandated minimum wage falls far short of what it would take to earn a living wage.

There are other challenges too—including the risk that COVID-19 is hastening the rise of precarious jobs in Canada as well as the threat of automating jobs in certain sectors.

On this Labour Day, workers may not take to the streets, but the need for solidarity and collective action—working hand-in-hand with social justice movements that are fighting for racial and Indigenous justice, as well as climate justice—has never been more urgent.

And on this Labour Day, a reminder of the strength that workers have when they leverage their collective power for a cause: the NBA and WNBA players’ recent wildcat strikes to protest police brutality and racial injustices in the middle of this highly unusual “bubble” playoff season was a powerful act of solidarity.

Canada’s own Toronto Raptors led the way in that conversation, strategically using their platform to raise consciousness. It’s resulted in sports reporters writing about racial justice, not just “the game.” It’s a symbol of what’s possible when we collectively rise to demand equality, fairness, and a just recovery. 

Let this unique Labour Day be a turning point for us, for our children, for future generations. Let it be the start of a rallying cry for a fully just recovery at a time when COVID-19 is forcing us to rethink everything.


Trish Hennessy is director of Think Upstream, a project of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Follow Trish on Twitter: @trishhennessy.

 

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