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HomeEditorialEssential Workers: Endangered? Disposable? A Call for Change.

Essential Workers: Endangered? Disposable? A Call for Change.

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Workers that provide essential services have been the national heroes since COVID-19 disrupted our world but there is a growing concern that as the number of COVID-19 related cases reduce, there is a frenzied move by government to replace them and quickly fill the gaps created by the pandemic, projecting the notion that they are merely disposable workers.

For over two decades, Canada has led advanced economies at attracting superb human and intellectual resources from around the world, outpacing the Group of Seven Industrialized Nations through strategic immigration policies. The Federal Skilled and Unskilled worker programs, Provincial Nominee program and more recently, the Express Entry have been major gateways. We are proud to open the gates of the Maple Leaf country to skilled and unskilled immigrants and workers and tell the world how culturally diverse we are. That Canada is the new destination spot of the world is not in doubt. We are daily inundated with media reviews and updates on the number of immigrants and foreign workers coming into the country, on a regular basis. Then came COVID-19. The immigration trend slowed down drastically, creating a wide gulf in the required number of essential workers to work in those service areas that will keep the country moving. The pandemic inadvertently put a strain on an already over-stretched workforce, leading to certain quick intervention policies.

The Honourable Marco E. L. Mendicino, P. C., M. P., Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship recently said when talking about accelerated pathway to permanent residency, that, “the pandemic has shown a bright light on the incredible contributions of newcomers. These new policies will help those with a temporary status to plan their future in Canada, play a key role in our economic recovery and help us build back better. Our message to them is simple: your status may be temporary, but your contributions are lasting – and we want you to stay.”

The accelerated pathway to permanent residency is a public policy that will encourage essential temporary workers and international graduates to put down roots in Canada and help retain them, especially in healthcare. We daresay, to what end?

For the avoidance of doubt, “Essential workers are individuals who perform services that are critical to maintaining the health, safety, security and economic well-being of the population.”- Betterteam, August 11, 2021. These essential workers include workers across sectors such as health, information and communication technology, financial services, government, transportation, food and manufacturing. They are “critical to preserving life, health and basic societal functioning.” However, the qualification of an essential worker varies by province and territory.

There is also a set of workers who are COVID-19 related essential workers. It is hard to determine their number because of their diversity. For example, hospitals and hospices don’t depend on doctors and nurses alone, there are other essential workers who keep such places running such as cleaners, cooks, ambulance service workers, etc. Most of these workers are disadvantaged economically – they earn below the national median even as many of them are over-qualified for the jobs they do. These economically disadvantaged workers are at a higher risk. They earn low wages; can’t afford to stay away from work even when they are sick; can’t afford to have their health and the health of family members insured comprehensively; live mostly in crowded places and can easily be infected. It is a vicious cycle as cross infection and transmission of the virus becomes easy under these conditions. While other categories of workers do telework, these essential workers mostly must push themselves forward and out, in the face of a threat such as COVID-19, to ensure we all get a better chance at life. Essential workers have become the first contact for most people, including COVID-19 carriers and patients. They are the frontline workers, the first responders, the first service providers. They are exposed. They are the most vulnerable among us. They are unprotected in other ways (obtaining the mandatory COVID vaccines notwithstanding.).

A paper titled ““Disposable” and “essential”: Changes in the global hierarchies of migrant workers after COVID-19” published by International Organization for Migration in 2020, raises this same question which is a major concern to the immigrant community. The paper recognizes that: “the government’s willingness to accept low-skill laborers, and even go to the extra mile in finding appropriate solutions, like chartered flights with few passengers sitting at safe distances and assistance with their accommodation and self-isolation, does not reveal some new sensitivity about the living or working conditions of these temporary foreign workers. Rather, it has been a knee-jerk reaction to the fear of the agriculture and food-processing industry chain breaking down, leaving supermarkets in short supply and harvests wasted. The question that arises is whether the pandemic lesson can help shape more sustainable immigration policy for such essential albeit low-skilled workers in the agri-food sector.”

For instance, while stakeholders and the public are concerned about the consequences of not admitting the annual roughly 60,000 seasonal workers in the Agric sector, is there commensurate concerns about the safety of these mostly undocumented farm and other low-skilled underpaid workers who became ‘essential’ during the pandemic?

While other categories of workers do telework, these essential workers mostly must push themselves forward and out, in the face of a threat such as COVID-19, to ensure we all get a better chance at life.

It is on record that most of these jobs done by essential immigrant workers are avoided by indigenous Canadians despite the incentives offered by the Canadian government to encourage the teeming number of unemployed Canadians to apply.

The Immigrant Life is adding its voice to the call of advocacy groups for better migrant workers protection. For starters, how many of these foreign workers are documented? How many have residency status? Apart from getting COVID-19 shots, how else are they protected? These workers literally lose their lives daily to keep us alive. They are the true heroes of the pandemic and should be treated as such while they can still breathe. The Chief Justice of Ontario in September 2020 revealed that, “the most vulnerable have been disproportionately affected: residents of long-term care facilities, migrant farm workers and the homeless.” This statement was validated by Statistics Canada in the same year 2020 when it stated inter-alia that “immigrants are disproportionately represented in sectors with greater exposure to COVID-19 – front-line/essential workers, including long-term care, where the majority of deaths have occurred. They are more likely to work in industries worst affected by the pandemic, such as food and accommodation services – compounding health and economic risks. Immigrants and visible minorities are also more likely to report facing harassment, attacks, and stigma – adding to the health and economic impacts of COVID-19.”

Immigrants are known to constitute a high percentage of essential workers. “In 2016, 245,500 people were employed as nurse aides, orderlies and patient service associates in Canada. Of these workers, more than a third (87,925) were immigrants. By comparison, immigrants represented less than 1 in 4 people in all other occupations…Specifically, nurse aides, orderlies and patient service associates were more likely to belong to a population group designated as a visible minority (34%) than workers in all other occupations (21%).” The Employment Equity Act defines visible minorities as “persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in color.” They include South Asians, Chinese, Blacks, Filipinos, Latin Americans, Arabs, Southeast Asians, West Asians, Koreans and Japanese.

As many of the provinces in Canada have moved to Step 3 of the Roadman to Reopen, there are implications for everyone, especially for essential workers. Their risk of exposure and infection will more than double. By extension, that may be true for the rest of us. The workers may be essential workers, but they are not disposable. For the sustained safety of these true heroes of COVID-19, we advocate as a matter of urgency, the following.

Employers must act responsibly and perform their legal duty under the Occupational Health and Safety Act to ensure the safety and protection of workers. Regular nasal, throat, and saliva testing (at least every three days) should be conducted for essential workers. Early detection of an infection is advised to forestall cross infection. For those who test positive, the government should provide paid leave. Portable air cleaners could be installed at workplaces. The number of air changes should also be increased per hour. Employers and the government should in addition have in place partitions, barriers, and splash guards to limit how infectious droplets migrate from one person to another. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) must be a preserve for front-line healthcare and other essential workers who are regularly exposed to carriers of COVID-19.

Apart from these physical provisions, the government should institute intervention plans to help improve the conditions of these essential workers. Government can create a short-term social contract with them which should protect their family and future finance, ensure their employers keep them healthy and offer compensation and incentives as they continue to lay their lives on the line.

There seems to be a ray of hope for these Canadian foot soldiers in the country and whose numbers are depleting daily. The Washington Post in a 7th August 2021 post, succinctly beamed a spotlight on this silver lining. “Canada wants more immigrants – 401,000 this year, to be exact – and is not letting pandemic border controls get in the way. That means some new programs, including ones granting residency status to people already in the country and in jobs that might not have previously qualified.” A right step in the right direction, we say. Many of these workers are over-qualified for the jobs they do anyway, so integrating them permanently into the Canadian system and life does no harm to anybody. Rather, it would do our essential workers and the country a world of good. The government should use this pandemic to balance the interests of the country, employers of labor and that of migrant workers in a way that everyone wins. When the concerns and insecurities of essential workers are taken care of, a spiraling effect is created – a more dedicated workforce with minimal concerns because they and their families are already taken care of. In no time, they would even be in a better financial position to pay more tax to the government and yes, Canada needs that too!

The Editorial Board

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