Hong had been working in a commercial laundry in the greater Toronto area for nearly a decade when the pandemic hit.
He said the company has provided protective eye masks and gowns to nearly 100 employees. Hung, whose CBC Radio agreed to withhold to protect his job security, said that while he was transporting 18-kilogram bags of linen for $14.75 an hour, he could have kept a reasonable distance from the others.
But in the lunchroom on New Year’s Day, Hong sits with two of his colleagues, one of whom is his dear friend, whom he refers to as Mr. Wang for the purpose of telling his story. Hong said about 20 workers were crammed into a small break room of about 30 square metres.
Hong said, speaking through a CBC/Radio-Canada Mandarin translator, that Mr. Wang was not feeling well. “He had a headache, and he was coughing, but he thought it was an allergy.”
But since his wife was not working at the time, he told Mr. Wang Hong and another colleague that he could not afford the day off without pay. It was worse the next day, and on the third day, he had to stay home. Although Hong was not aware of this at the time, Mr. Wang was quickly taken to hospital, where he tested positive for COVID-19. He died of illness in February, one month before he qualified for retirement.
Meanwhile, Hong and another teammate who had lunch together tested positive. His colleague recovered, but Hong, who is in his 60s, has developed post-COVID symptoms — including shortness of breath, fatigue, brain fog and severely swollen legs. Against his doctor’s wish, he returned to work on January 30th when two weeks of his Canada Recovery Sickness (CRSB) benefits ran out. (CRSB has since expanded to cover up to four weeks.)
Labor advocates say essential workers — from warehouse workers to grocery employees to caregivers in long-term care homes — have borne the brunt of the pandemic, and they owe a future with higher wages and better protection for workers.
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Sunday magazine23:06Why Canada’s precarious essential workers need a new deal
That will mean reforming provincial and territorial labor laws to address the problem of a predominantly racist workforce that pays too little, has poor job security and typically doesn’t get paid sick leave, and holds big companies to account, they say.
“I think what the crisis has revealed is how inadequate our labor laws are across the country in protecting workers and, more importantly, the most vulnerable workers,” said Hassan Yusef, who has just retired as president of the Canadian Labor Council. The role he has held since 2014.
“For the first time, I think Canadians were able to see…more clearly that the people who were on the front lines who were keeping the country going — ensuring they got their groceries, their delivery orders met, all the other needs as well — were pretty racist.” Sunday magazine Guest host David Komon. “But what it also revealed is how vulnerable these individuals are.”
Before the pandemic, most Canadians weren’t aware of ‘how many people’ [who] They go to work day in and day out all over this country they don’t have paid sick days, when they need to go to the doctor to take care of their needs,” he said.
People in areas like Brampton and Scarborough in Ontario have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic, with higher rates of infection, hospitalization and deaths than in most parts of the country. This is largely because these neighborhoods are home to so many people whose primary jobs in warehouses, factories, and other places make it difficult to physically distance themselves. Complicating matters, absenteeism due to symptoms could mean defaulting on rent or even losing a job.
One challenge is that labor law is the jurisdiction of each province and territory, so there is no single governing body that can pass legislation that would secure sick pay and the most humane minimum wage for all Canadians.
However, in a statement to CBC Radio, Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) said federal, provincial and territorial labor ministers have met nearly throughout the pandemic and agreed that they must “work together on these issues for the benefit of all Canadian workers.”
She also said that — in addition to COVID-specific benefits like CRSB — the federal government has made recent budget changes that affect low-income employees in federally regulated industries such as baggage handlers at airlines, truck drivers and bank tellers. These include extended leave for work granted due to illness, as well as a minimum wage of $15, regardless of the equivalent in the province or territory in which they reside.
“This will directly benefit the more than 26,000 workers who currently earn less than $15 an hour in the federally regulated private sector,” the statement said.
On January 1, new rules also went into effect to crack down on employee misclassification in federally regulated industries — for example, treating people who make food for airlines as contractors when they should already be full-time employees.
But that still leaves the vast majority of Canadians in low-income, precarious jobs hoping for better wages and job protection from their provinces and territories.
Hong said he wanted to tell Ontario Premier Doug Ford that the province’s temporary sick leave pay, due to expire on September 25, should continue indefinitely. The Ontario COVID-19 Worker Income Protection Benefit provides up to three days of sick pay, which some have described as insufficient to recover from COVID; So far, the province has not indicated any plans to extend the program.
In addition to putting pressure on their governments, ordinary citizens can help address the problem by calling on big companies to do a better job for their employees, said Dina Ladd, CEO of Labor Center in Toronto, an advocacy organization for workers in low-wage, precarious, and precarious jobs that helped Hong file two successful claims through the Workplace Safety and Insurance Council.
The big companies are the ones who made the most money, [that] They don’t do what they want to doDina Ladd, Labor Center
“In some ways, what we’ve seen is that the smaller companies have really moved forward and really improved their wages and working conditions. But it’s the bigger companies that have made a lot of money, [that] Ladd said.
“We really need to push back the big corporations, and say that you have a responsibility as a corporate citizen to ensure that your workers are healthy, that they deserve a raise in their pay. And some of the profits you made from this pandemic should not go to your shareholders; it should go to your workers “.
Small businesses need to think too
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business warns that policy decisions on things like employer-funded sick leave or other programs funded through payroll taxes must be made with small businesses in mind as well, many of which are barely on hold after enduring lengthy closings.
“[If] They don’t offer sick days, not because they’re necessarily evil, because it’s a casual thing, maybe, in a small business…or [because] “It’s hard for them to save that extra paycheck, especially during a pandemic,” said Corinne Pullman, senior vice president of national affairs.
But the legislation that applies to large companies usually applies to small companies as well, she said. One implication is that small retailers, for example, cannot easily recover new costs from customers without losing business to giants like Amazon and Walmart. “It’s hard to raise your prices when your massive competitors can make everything in another country that might have lower labor costs.”
But until the legislative change is made, Ladd said, essential workers will have no choice but to join unions.
“Thousands of workers in these jobs organized before the epidemic. And what we saw during the epidemic [is] “There is nothing left for the people to lose,” Ladd said. “They realized that if they didn’t talk, if they didn’t organize, if we didn’t talk about what workers needed, nothing would really change.”
She said the Labor Center has seen a roughly 35 percent increase in membership compared to the pandemic and members say they feel they can’t go through another crisis like the one they just experienced, with the illness, death, stress and financial hardship it brought.
In Hong’s case, although his doctor wrote him a note shortly after he returned to work at the end of January requesting a modified work assignment that would allow him to get off his feet, he said there was no such position. Hong feared that if he took sick leave funded by employment insurance, he would likely lose his job. CBC Radio watched a transcript of the doctor’s note and the latest WSIB decision.
Hong said he stopped working on March 20 when his doctor warned him he could no longer work long hours due to swelling in his legs after the coronavirus. A friend told him about the Labor Work Center, and there he got help navigating the WSIB system and the forms to be filled out in English. Although he says he’s not well enough to get back yet, he’s reclaimed some lost wages through that process, and he said the help came when he was at the lowest and most hopelessly low levels of the pandemic.
Speaking through the translator, Hong said he was excited to share his story in order to let more workers, many of whom also struggle with language barriers, know they can get this kind of help.
Hassan Yousef and Dina Ladd Interviews produced by Chris Woodsko. Mandarin translation provided by Yan Liang.