A bartender’s perspective: COVID-19 and precarious workers

As businesses throughout Canada close, a whole underclass of workers will face uncertainty
Photo: The.Grim.North
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Along with my employment as a writer and researcher, I work part-time as a bartender in Toronto. The bar I work at is more of a neighbourhood pub, and in the regular course of business I generally enjoy the interactions with the customers — it’s really not a bad gig.

But this last week, even as the World Health Organization declared the new coronavirus a pandemic, as reported infections more than doubled in Ontario, and as senior government officials and celebrities went into isolation, customers came into the bar who were coughing and obviously sick.

I was furious about this, but I wasn’t exactly in any position to say anything because, as you know, the customer is always right. Of course, there is no reason to assume they were infected with the virus, but then again there is no reason to assume they were not. Just by being in the bar, they were taking liberties with the health and safety of the staff and all the other customers.

As I thought about this I realized it was totally irresponsible. It was irresponsible of the customers who were sick for being out in public — but it was also irresponsible of me for the part I played in facilitating social gatherings at a time when social distancing was necessary.

I also realized it was why, in due course, all the bars and restaurants in Toronto would need to be shut down. And in fact, the Ontario government did recently order all bars closed to help limit the spread of the virus.

Precarious workers need support and respect

But what does this mean for all the service industry workers who are now without an income? As businesses throughout Canada close, a whole underclass of workers will be affected and face uncertainty: cleaners, grocery store workers, gym workers, housekeepers, retail workers, cooks and dishwashers, daycare workers, undocumented workers and migrants, delivery drivers, gig workers, and many others.

All the working people who are paid minimum wage or less, who work part-time, with no job security, no benefits or sick days, and who are essentially held hostage by economic necessity to risk their health and the health of their families.

The inequality and precariousness that exists in Canada is an epidemic on its own.

Over the last couple days the federal and provincial governments have been making announcements on financial help for Canadians. I can understand that there are lots of moving pieces, but it has all been extremely vague. Whereas there has been at least some clarity for middle-class and working-class people with respect to employment insurance benefits, any assistance remains totally unclear for the precarious underclass.

The first concern for broader Canadian society right now is health. Precarious workers are going to get sick and are not going to be able to take time off. It is easy to imagine how dangerous that is.

The inequality epidemic

But in a more general sense this emergency situation is simply highlighting an ongoing ethical wrong in our country, one that has not been addressed (or even acknowledged) all along.

The inequality and precariousness that exists in Canada is an epidemic on its own. Now the social epidemic is brought to light by the biological epidemic, and one reinforces and spurs the other. Not just government but Canadian society at large needs to step up and find or demand solutions for the underclass. Solutions need to be clear, unequivocal, and easy to access. This needs to happen now.

Proponents of a universal basic income will likely find little solace in being able to now say “we told you so.” But as a solution, a universal basic income would be an immediate stopgap against financial calamity and would, by extension, contribute in a significant way to addressing the impacts of COVID-19 on the healthcare system.

Whatever the solution is, this is a conversation that needs to happen now, as major sections of the commercial economy shut down and as more and more already precarious workers find themselves in an even worse predicament.

While this pandemic is an urgent and multifaceted crisis, it is also an opportunity to examine how inequality functions in Canada and find ways to fix that for good.

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