When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) to support workers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the initial response was mixed. The original package mirrored what we’ve seen in plenty of other countries, but is a significant step-up from the support given to workers in the United States. Coming from a government which, less than a month earlier, was making headlines for their invasion of Wet’suwet’en territory, the package actually sounded progressive.
It doesn’t take careful analysis, however, to determine that the CERB was structured in a way that not only fails to protect the most vulnerable Canadians, but continues to sow the deep divisions among working people that have allowed capitalist interests to dictate Canadian policy and maintain power for more than a century.
Within hours of the prime minister’s announcement, people were weighing in online. “I manage security guards,” wrote one poster, explaining that these are minimum wage workers who make less than $2,000 per month. He commented: “They are being forced to work as they are deemed ‘essential’. How is this fair?”
This criticism of the CERB is commonplace for many workers still working either at or just above minimum wage. Only six of Canada’s provinces and territories provide a minimum wage that would match or surpass the emergency benefit. With so few people getting those full-time hours, it’s no surprise that they feel cheated. How can it be fair for people still working to make less than those who are not?
It’s not fair, and it’s not meant to be.
As more and more details rolled out about who was and wasn’t covered, what work was and wasn’t replaceable, the intention of the CERB quickly crystallized, namely, to protect and support upper middle class and white-collar workers, while continuing to exploit and ignore the most vulnerable.
Nearly six million people have applied for the emergency benefit so far, according to the CBC. Yet the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reports that a full third of unemployed people were effectively forgotten under the original parameters of the emergency benefit program. The already unemployed, the homeless, seasonal workers and graduating students were the most impacted.
While the government has since announced expansions to the benefit program—part-time, contract and seasonal workers now qualify, and the previous wage subsidy of 10 percent was raised to 75 percent—the systemic issues affecting low-wage workers have not been addressed. Many of these workers are receiving few to no extended benefits, and many are forced to continue working because they are ineligible for the CERB unless they are laid off.
While some unions and labour movements across Canada have successfully lobbied for increased pay, many non-union and contract workers are not in a position to follow suit. In other words, essential workers are exposing themselves to a deadly pandemic to provide necessary services and are being rewarded for it with wages lower than what the government deemed acceptable to keep most people afloat.
There is anger among these workers, no doubt. But the danger lies in where that anger is directed. Put to productive use, it can be channeled into a grassroots labour movement. Otherwise we could see more cracks in the solidarity of the working class that neutralize the power workers hold.
In the early 20th century on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, James Dunsmuir found that he could divide workers by offering Chinese miners less money for the same work, using them as strike breakers when other miners walked off the job to press for fair wages. Fights broke out, with many of the white miners attacking the Chinese strike breakers. When they met the mining companies at the negotiating table, these strikers demanded that Chinese workers be excluded from the mines.
Their anger was understandable, but the direction they channeled it in was harmful for the labour movement. Divided, we cannot win. The source of our power is hamstrung when we are not united. It is only through solidarity that labour movements can effect real change. In 1983, the Operation Solidarity movement in BC united in opposition to a stable of bills introduced by the provincial government. A series of protests, strikes, and walkouts that spanned four months and involved gatherings of up to 80,000 people eventually brought Bill Bennett’s Social Credit government to the table for negotiations. While many were underwhelmed by the final results, it still serves as a model of how to achieve social change.
This is why it is so important to consider how rightfully angry many low-wage workers are that they are receiving wages lower than the emergency benefit and to encourage that anger to be directed at the right target: not at those receiving the CERB, but at the government and employers for not guaranteeing adequate wages in the first place.
The COVID-19 pandemic has pulled back the curtain on several labour issues, making it clear to the broader public, for example, that poor working conditions exacerbate public health problems. The Lynn Valley COVID-19 outbreak spread across care homes as quickly as it did in part because many of the part-time workers, most of whom belonged to minority groups, were picking up extra shifts at other care homes to make ends meet.
The spotlight on poor working conditions and low wages gives the labour movement a unique opportunity to bring pressure to bear on employers and government to implement policy changes. But this can only happen with a far-reaching movement like Operation Solidarity, where activist movements, rights groups, and labour organizations coalesce around specific issues and demands.
Brett Nelson is a writer and digital marketer. He currently lives on Vancouver Island.