We don’t know what a post-pandemic rebound will look like, and we don’t know how we will respond. At the same time, the Conservative Party argues that federal benefits could “derail” provincial plans to reopen, discouraging potential workers from returning to work. Party leader Andrew Scheer recommends phasing out benefits so workers do not have to choose between receiving relief and returning to work.
In late April, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and provincial premiers released guidelines for returning to normal. These measures include basic protections for workers, “such as the provision of personal protective equipment to workers who cannot maintain a physical distance,” said an article on the joint statement. But when we discuss the reopening of the country, jurisdiction by jurisdiction, return to work, we must also take seriously the fact that workers may not be able or willing to do so.
The pandemic has cost us more than an economic toll. It also had a psychological impact. Workers who are not ready to return to work, who are afraid of returning to work, should not be forced to return. They should also have access to benefits until they are ready to return. With the exception of certain workers deemed essential, who should receive remuneration and benefits according to the additional burdens and risks they assume (beyond the federal-provincial wage subsidy), no worker should be treated. as a test subject for a province or territory’s reopening plan. – or worse, fodder for production and profit.
In Alberta, a meat packing plant was the site of the largest covid-19 outbreak in Canada. As reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the facility was linked to more than 1,200 cases of covid-19. An employee died and her husband was hospitalized for the coronavirus. Cargill workers are terrified. “The union, arguing that the conditions are not safe for the workers, is asking Cargill to stop work,” reported the Calgary Herald. Here is the story we read. This is not the only one.
The capitalist market’s obsession with productivity, efficiency and consumption will continue to push for the reopening of the country. If the leaders wanted to speak to lead the front line charge, I might be impressed by their commitment. So far, I have not seen any offer of this type. Think of it as a thought experiment, to center the mind on who is risking a lot – and who is risking little – when we talk about getting back to normal.
Canada is soon to meet a post-pandemic world, but who said it must be like the pre-pandemic world? The country could take advantage of this moment to further protect workers and respect their physical and psychological health. Businesses that cannot guarantee the safety of those making a profit should not reopen during or after the pandemic. They shouldn’t have been opened in the first place. In addition, we must take this moment to question production and consumption – not to eliminate either, as we need both, but to rebalance our lives away from the obsession with growth for growth. Or rather growth in favor of profits which will be unequally shared.
As Canada’s provinces and territories begin to reopen, they should prioritize the health and safety of workers. This undertaking should include the right of any worker who is afraid to return to work to say no and to remain employed (and paid) or protected by adequate provincial and federal benefits.
The pandemic has revealed something that too often remains hidden: the value and the need of workers who are too often treated like powder for the mill, exploited and forgotten. The least we owe to workers is respect for their right to safety and health. If you wish, you can consider this part of the cost of doing business.