Labour in the time of COVID: One Year in

admin – March 15, 2021

COVID-19 has radically shifted systems of labour. Now is the time to move the dial and make big gains in labour for the betterment of working Canadians. 

Just over a year ago, COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. People were told to stay home, leading to radical shifts in employment and conditions for working people. A virus that is transmitted through proximity to others created new risks and hazards for working people and disrupted Canada’s system of labour within late stage capitalism. 

While millions of Canadians were able to make the shift to working from home, millions of others did not have the relative luxury of staying home to stay safe. 

In the first few months of the pandemic and country-wide shutdown, health care workers, grocery store workers, food production workers, service workers, postal workers, delivery workers, and many others had to keep going to work in increasingly unsafe work environments and constantly changing public health directions. 

Never has the essential nature of this work been more clear. The pandemic has provided a moment of reckoning for governments, employers, and managers. It shone a light on the work that is essential for both our collective survival and the workers that sustain  Canada’s capitalist economy. This new light gave rise to renewed questions that drove the birth of the labour movement in Canada a century ago: Why are workers, who are deemed essential, perpetually underpaid? Why are these workers not afforded safer working conditions and benefits? Do we, collectively, accept the farce of “meritocracy” that undervalues  certain work because of who performs that labour, where they come from, and their race or place of origin? Do we accept the paradox of governments and employers that preach personal responsibility while abdicating their responsibility to ensure the safety of millions of Canadian workers?  Or, is this the moment we finally recognize the deep inequalities that exist within a system predicated on white supremacy, colonialism, and exploitation.  

Millions…did not have the relative luxury of staying home to stay safe.

The pandemic helped breathe new life into a conversation about labour and working people that builds on decades of work by the labour movement and progressive political parties. It put working people back into mainstream discourse and media. Perhaps most excitingly, social media is being used to spread messages about working conditions, inequality, and the concept of labour in late-stage capitalism in new ways. Billionaires are doubling their wealth while Amazon workers are being barred from unionizing. “Wage theft” starts popping up in friends’ Instagram stories. A 19-year old Syrian refugee who worked at a long-term care facility passed away after contracting COVID-19. I start to see “eat the rich” all over TikTok. Stories emerge of wealthy queue-jumpers paying to get vaccinated first. I start to see references to guillotines on Twitter. 

Women, and especially women of colour, have shouldered the bulk of the pandemic labour burden. From increasing the double shift of working from home and taking care of kids to being disproportionately impacted by job loss and layoffs, the pandemic has revealed our capitalist work order is indeed rooted in a white supremicist patriarchy. 

Unions have recognized this moment and have made some incredible accomplishments. They have advocated for and been successful in making progress on paid sick leave, financial compensation for front-line workers, and better working conditions for union and non-union workers alike. 

Last year, Metric developed a poster campaign to recognize essential workers

A year later, this campaign is as relevant as ever. 

There is still so much work to be done when it comes to challenging a system where the deck is stacked against workers. 

At Metric, we are committed to this fight. We work each day to move the dial. We help unions and political parties fight for progressive change. This fight has only become more crucial in this time of pandemic. 

We see workers’ struggles and we work in solidarity. 

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Brenna Ward is an Account and Project Manager at Metric. She previously worked as a digital marketer for Parks Canada and served as a press secretary in the Notley NDP government. In a previous life, Brenna worked as a wildland firefighter in Ontario.