COVID-19 began with the slogan that “we’re all in this together” but the virus and economic crisis have instead worsened pre-existing inequalities. For months, communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic have demanded accurate data. As Angela Robertson, executive director of the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre, explained in April:
“As much as we have critiques of the health-care system in America, they have done data collection, they can disaggregate by race within health care. We in Canada have been glacial in our movement in the collection of race-based data in our health-care system. As a result we will not be able to identify the disproportional access challenges, deaths, illnesses that Black communities will experience as a result of COVID-19.”
As of July, the monthly Labour Force Survey now asks respondents aged 15 to 69 to which ethnicity/racial grouping they belong, respondents being able to designate themselves as White, South Asian, Chinese, Black, Filipino, Arab, Latin American, Southeast Asian, West Asian, Korean, and Other as per the definitions of “visible minority” in the Employment Equity Act. On September 4, Statistics Canada published its monthly labour survey report, revealing that racialized and migrant workers have been disproportionately exposed to COVID-19 as essential workers, and are at a greater risk of unemployment from the economic crisis.
Essential workers denied essential protections
Occupational risk emerged as a critical factor in COVID-19 infection. People who are racialized and/or are immigrants, especially women, were more likely to work in public-facing jobs and in precarious positions characterized by low wages, temporariness that is often contractual or seasonal, instability, a lack of security, and a lack of pensions and benefits such as emergency or sick leave. These positions included health and social care work, driving public transit, custodial work, and retail/grocery work. Immigrants were also more likely to work in spaces that limited the ability of workers to physically distance and that did not initially guarantee personal protective equipment universally, such as plants and factories.
In the 2016 census it was found that racialized workers have higher than average numbers in sales-and-services related occupations and a lower than average presence in management and trades-related occupations, meaning that they were less likely to be able to work from home and socially distance. Racialized workers comprised 21% of the workforce in 2016 but had higher than average presence in essential worker occupations, including food manufacturing, grocery store work, health and personal care, transit and transportation, couriers, warehousing, waste management and daycare.
The relatively small change in the year-over-year unemployment rate among Black and Filipino Canadians is thought to be partially attributable to their overrepresentation in health care and social assistance—essential services through the pandemic. In July 2020, 20.3% of Black Canadians and 23.6% of Filipino Canadians worked in healthcare and social assistance in comparison to 13.7% of all workers. Overall 35.8% of Canada’s 245,500 nurse aides, orderlies, and patient service associates in 2016 were immigrants, the majority of whom were women. A quarter of these immigrant nurse aids, orderlies, and patient service associates were Black women. Ontario and Quebec nurse aides, orderlies, and patient service associates working in long-term care in particular were vulnerable to COVID-19, which also put their communities at risk of the pandemic. Personal protective equipment was not guaranteed for healthcare workers by currently standing labour laws, and workers in long-term care homes and homecare workers were left more vulnerable to infection.
Care work is made more dangerous by the conditions caused by privatization and underfunding. In Canada, nursing homes were an epicenter of the pandemic. In 2015, Ontario had fewer hospital beds than all OECD countries except for Chile and Mexico, the result of hospital restructuring in the province in the last three decades due to the most dramatic hospital funding cuts in the developed world. Due to these cuts, those who would have been held in hospital beds in the past few decades increasingly have been assigned to for-profit long-term care homes. The logic of for-profit facilities demands cost-cutting measures which create fertile grounds for precarious, insecure, and unsafe work for its employees: 58% of long-term care homes in Ontario are for-profit facilities, which one study has linked to higher rates of hospitalization and mortality.
Many nursing home staff are precariously employed, working part-time without paid sick leave, and were thus unable to self-isolate though they had symptoms of illness. Workers were also often split between multiple facilities by part-time work, which increases the risk of spreading infection across residences; healthcare and social assistance workers are among the most likely to hold multiple jobs. During the pandemic, working as a healthcare worker proved to be a risk factor for COVID-19 infection among immigrant and refugee women. In Ontario, 36% of all women who tested positive were healthcare workers, and 45% of these healthcare workers were immigrant and refugee women. Among immigrant women who tested positive for COVID-19, 53% of women from the Philippines, 64% of women from Jamaica, and 76% of women from Nigeria were healthcare workers.
Migrant workers denied status
Temporary foreign workers are a vital and growing part of the Canadian labour force: 340,000 in 2017, 390,000 in 2018, and 470,000 in 2020. In 2017 temporary foreign workers were employed in 10% of Canadian firms, and the workforce of over one-third of these firms was comprised of at least 30% temporary foreign workers. The majority of temporary foreign workers in agriculture are from the Global South, including Mexico, Guatemala, Jamaica, Thailand, and the Philippines. Prior the pandemic between January and April of 2020, Mexicans accounted for 41% of work permits issued to temporary foreign workers. Despite the “temporary” designation, many migrant workers have worked for years in Canada but are still denied status.
Though the number of temporary foreign workers is relatively small, they comprise 15.5% of the workforce in agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting. Temporary foreign workers comprised 27.4% of employees in crop production in 2017; they were 41.6% of workers in Ontario and 30% of agricultural workers in Quebec, British Columbia, and Nova Scotia. About one-tenth of crop production firms, gasoline stations, and food services/drinking places, and 17% of private household services employers have a workforce that is at least 30% temporary foreign workers.
Migrant workers were disproportionately represented in essential industries that continued through the pandemic. Their labour is central to the economy, but because they are denied status and basic labour rights their workplaces have become epicenters of the pandemic in Canada. In Alberta, meatpacking plants with COVID-19 outbreaks were staffed mostly by temporary foreign workers. Alberta is, as of July, the province with the highest infection rate per capita. Meat product manufacturing’s overall workforce is 41.7% racialized. The Harmony Beef meat-processing plant north of Calgary has seen two COVID-19 outbreaks as of September. Case Ready Meats, owned by Cargill, had an outbreak in August, and Sofina Foods/Lilydale poultry processing plant in Calgary did as well in the same month.
The Cargill meat-processing plant in High River, Alberta had what is likely the most notorious COVID-19 outbreak in Canada thus far. It was the largest single site of a COVID-19 outbreak in Canada and the largest single workplace outbreak in North America as of August 14, occurring in late April. 1,560 cases were linked to the outbreak and three died. The second largest outbreak in Canada at the time of Cargill’s High River outbreak occurred at another meat-packing plant owned by JBS in Brooks, Alberta; the two plants at the time of the outbreaks in April had higher recorded rates of infection than the provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador combined. Cargill and JBS together oversee operations that account for 70% of beef production in Canada.
A Globe and Mail investigation of the outbreak found that health and safety protocol was not universally enforced in a timely manner; employees were not required to wear masks and/or use face shields until mid-April and this personal protective equipment was not necessarily provided by the employer though staff reported seeing the management wear it. Workers also reported that they were not encouraged to self-isolate and said that they were cleared to work even though they had traveled recently abroad, did not complete isolation periods, received positive test results for COVID-19, and displayed symptoms. Some employees who were absent due to the pandemic received up to 80 hours of their regular pay, but those that were ineligible for this initiative were told that they would be temporarily laid off without pay if they were unwilling to work and were offered a $500 bonus for working eight weeks consecutively without missing a shift.
In Ontario, COVID-19 outbreaks occurred in large numbers among migrant farmers and resulted in multiple deaths of temporary foreign workers. In Ontario, over 1,300 temporary foreign workers on farms have tested positive for COVID-19 and three died. Workers reported being unable to sufficiently socially distance to prevent the spread of COVID-19, while also being underfed. Human rights lawyer Susanna Quail stated that, in the case of migrant farm workers, their workplaces are also where they temporarily live. This makes them vulnerable to worker exploitation, which during the pandemic would mean not having health and safety measures enforced, or even enacted to begin with. Quail says “it would mean that a migrant worker has no access to advocates who might assist them if they’re experiencing abuse or exploitation. It would mean that a migrant worker would have no ability to go to a store and buy a mask if they’re not receiving sufficient protective equipment in their employment.”
Unemployment inequities: no equal share in economic recovery
The unemployment rate was 5.6% in February before the lockdown, and hit a high of 13.7% in May. In August it was down to 10.2%, but this recovery was not evenly distributed. For example, the unemployment rate in the month of August was 17.6% among the Black population and 14.9% among the South Asian population group. This also includes a gender gap: the unemployment rate was 18.6% among Black women and 15.1% among Black men; 20.4% among South Asian women and 15.4% of South Asian men.
Part of the unemployment rates among visible Canadians who are visible minorities reflect their concentrations in industries that were harder hit by the pandemic. For example, the hardest hit industry by the economic downturn was the food services industry, which saw a 50.0% drop in employment from February to April; 19.1% of Korean Canadians, 14.2% of Filipino Canadians, and 14.0% of Canadians are employed in the accommodation and food industry—the highest rates of all racial groups—in comparison to 5.9% of Canadians who are not a member of a designated visible minority group and do not identify as Indigenous.
Racism within the market also affects youth unemployment. The overall youth (aged 15 to 24) unemployment rate in August was 23.1%, which is much higher than during the 2008-2009 recession (16.4%). But this was also racialized: while non-visible minority youth had an unemployment rate of 18.0% it was nearly double (32.3%) for visible minority youth. Similarly, among returning students, the unemployment rate in August for those who were visible minorities was 35.3% in comparison to 19.9% among returning students who were not from a visible minority.
Capitalist unemployment disproportionately affects both immigrants and Indigenous workers. Prior to the pandemic in February 2020, the unemployment rate among Immigrants landed five or less years earlier (10.2%) was nearly double that of those born in Canada (5.4%). Since that time the unemployment rate of those born in Canada peaked at 12.5% and fell to 10.6% in August, but for immigrants landed less than five years ago it peaked at 18.2% and only fell to 16.4%. Going into the pandemic, the 970,000 Indigenous Canadians living off-reserve were more vulnerable to the negative health and socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic. In 2015, 24% of Indigenous Canadians living in urban areas were living at or below the poverty line, while the corresponding rate among non-Indigenous Canadians was 13%. In 2019, the unemployment rate among the Indigenous population aged 25 to 54 (8.3%) was nearly double than among the non-Indigenous population (4.6%).
The scale and disproportionate impact of the pandemic—which are finally being acknowledged—make it clear that precarious work and capitalist crisis, lack of paid sick days and lack of status, and anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism are threats to public health. The latest data emphasize the growing demands for paid sick days, status for all, and that Black and Indigenous Lives Matter.
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