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Essential workers deserve to be safe during COVID-19

By:
Jasleen Bains @jasleen.bainss

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many disruptions in our everyday lives -- but even more-so to the most vulnerable.

When the pandemic was first announced in March, many proclaimed the virus as a “great equalizer,” as we were all forced to stay inside and slow down our busy lives. 

For most people, this is not the case. 

Marginalized folks, including low-income communities, migrant workers, and Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) have been disproportionately impacted, as many depend on employment to support their families, and for some, to remain in the country. This includes the South Asian community, who make up a huge section of the workforce in Surrey and the larger Fraser Valley Region. 

Essential workers have been the most vulnerable among us during this time, as they continue to be on the front lines working to make sure we have the services and supplies we require to survive. These individuals continue to work everyday with little to no protection. 

Last Monday, Health Minister Adrian Dix publicly acknowledged grocery store workers for their efforts to serve the public during the pandemic.

In everyday conversations however, the well-being of front line workers is often overlooked, as many continue to go about their daily lives removed from the dangerous reality that essential workers are facing to both provide an essential service, and provide for themselves and their families.

We need to expand the dialogue surrounding worker justice to go beyond simply plexiglass shields and to include increased benefits such as sick leave and extended health benefits, and recognize the disproportionate burden placed on these workers during this time.

Many of us know people in our lives who work on the front line in grocery stores, health care, care homes, trucking, or in agriculture. However, it doesn’t require knowing someone on the front lines to understand that there needs to be more compassion and more justice-oriented action undertaken, and that people like you and I carry a responsibility in helping to keep these people safe.

For months we have heard of stories of workers being exploited and treated horribly during this pandemic. Truckers being denied from restrooms as they deliver essential goods, grocery store workers being verbally abused by customers, and massive outbreaks on farms and meat processing facilities. These few examples simply scratch the surface of what workers in multiple industries are having to experience. 

One of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in North America took place right beside B.C., at the Cargill beef-processing plant in Alberta. The plant was linked to over 1,000 cases and three deaths, and is currently facing a lawsuit due to the fact that employees claim that they were told to return to work even after testing positive for COVID-19. 

Employees in meat processing factories, who are often racialized, are extremely vulnerable as the fast-paced environment, close-knit working conditions, and poor ventilation that have always existed, are now putting workers' lives in jeopardy. 

Similarly, the pandemic has brought attention to the pre-existing cracks to our agricultural industry and how it is intertwined with the exploitation of migrant workers. 

The temporary foregin worker program allows migrant workers to remain in Canada while working on a short term basis. Many workers are employed within Canada’s agricultural system and work hard to ensure Canadians have access to food. However, workers under this program are tied to a single employer, meaning if they have concerns with their workplace and the safety of the conditions they are required to work in, it is nearly impossible for them to come forward. 

Migrant workers under the temporary foregin worker program are able to apply for an open work permit if facing abuse or unsafe working conditions, however this is easier said than done. Due to the precarious nature of their status in Canada, many fear that speaking up could lead to their removal from the country.      

These concerns were voiced on August 21st at a rally in front of Delta MP and Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, Carla Qualtrough’s office. The event was organized as a part of the Amnesty for Undocumented Workers Campaign, led by the Migrant Workers Centre.  

These cases of injustice should come at no surprise, because the pandemic has highlighted the unsafe and exploitative working conditions that already existed way before COVID-19, and across multiple labour sectors in Canada. 

How can we as a society better protect this population? 

It begins with acknowledging the precarity of their situation. We can no longer ignore those workers who are serving us in grocery stores, who are working tirelessly to produce the food we eat, and who are travelling across the country to deliver essential supplies. 

These are only a few examples of the types of workers who ensure our communities are running smoothly, and many of them belong to already marginalized populations.

September 7th marks Labour Day, an annual holiday that is meant to honour the achievements of workers, specifically the labour union movement which fought for workers to have increased rights such as the 8-hour work day. 

This Labour Day, let’s show our solidarity with workers. It is time we recognize that being an essential worker does not mean forfeiting your rights to safety. 

If we truly want to fight for equality, it means that we must step up and protect those most vulnerable right now.

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