Trading our lives for their profits: The plan to sacrifice low-wage workers

The rush to reopen the economy highlights a divide between those motivated by public health and those who would sacrifice minimum wage workers to protect profits
Photo: trpnblies7

The shitweasels are multiplying.

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Last week John Ivison wrote a lazy screed for the National Post arguing that the CERB was too generous and would prompt minimum-wage workers to stay home rather than return to work in the middle of a pandemic.

It was cruel, immoral, incorrect ... and sadly unoriginal. Ivison had simply copied his homework from a right-wing corporate lobby group known as the C.D. Howe institute.

This bootlicking embrace of profit over people has now metastasized, with conservative politicians from Andrew Scheer to Manitoba premier Brian Pallister whining that the CERB is too generous and disincentivizes people from working. Even Preston Manning was wheeled out of his crypt to call the entire CERB program an “overreaction.” It’s almost like there was a memo.

This is about using economic desperation to force minimum-wage workers back into unsafe workplaces.

All this hullabaloo over a program that pays the equivalent of $12.50 an hour for a full-time worker. Apparently that’s too generous for the militant miser brigade, who would rather force workers to risk their lives and their families’ lives to put food on the table.

Large business owners remain safe at home while their front groups and fellow death cultists call on government to withdraw economic support so their employees have no choice but to return to work before Canada’s COVID-19 epidemic is under control.

Make no mistake: This is about using economic desperation to force minimum-wage workers back into unsafe workplaces.

(Like the Cargill meatpacking plant in Alberta, now the site of the largest single coronavirus outbreak in North America with over 900 confirmed cases, to name just one notorious example. The company funnels its profits back to its billionaire owners in the U.S. through tax havens. Too bad Trudeau refused to make companies registered in tax havens ineligible for government support, huh? The company will be dipping heavily into the federal trough while advocating for its workers to be cut off so they’re forced to come back to what has become one of the most dangerous workplaces in Canada. All so profits that aren’t taxed by our government can continue to flow to owners that don’t even live in Canada.)

A rapid reopening with no flattened curve

Meanwhile in Quebec, the epicentre of coronavirus cases in Canada, Premier François Legault is barrelling ahead with a plan to open businesses and schools over the next two weeks — despite opposition from the province’s public health institute, school boards and schools themselves.

The public health institute says returning kids to school too soon “risks causing a sharp increase in the disease in the adult population,” and a group of nine English school boards issued a scathing statement calling it a “hastily announced” plan that “does not constitute a safe … return.” Schools in the French system have expressed similar concerns.

But Legault has doubled down, ordering schools that do not feel they can keep their staff and students safe to reopen anyway, and sticking to plans to reopen stores and other businesses.

Trump is willing to sacrifice the old and unwell on the altar of profit, and there are voices here calling for Canada to follow his lead. I like to call them shitweasels.

As reported by Montreal Gazette health reporter Aaron Derfel, a majority of Montreal’s hospitals have overcrowded emergency departments, many are dealing with outbreaks of the coronavirus and both hospitalizations and cases of COVID-19 are increasing in the city. Yesterday CBC’s Jonathan Montpetit reported that the city is running out of hospital beds, and doctors are warning the backlog of patients must be cleared before the city can reopen.

The public health officers for both Montreal and the province have admitted that the epidemiological curve is not flattening, but still the band plays on.

For its part, Ontario seems intent on following Quebec’s lead and moving forward with a rapid reopening of the economy.

Acting like Trump

All of this is reminiscent of what’s happening in the U.S., where Donald Trump and many state governments are eager to reopen, despite having failed to take the necessary steps to make such a reopening feasible.

As Jeremy Kondyck, an expert in disease outbreak preparedness at the Center for Global Development, told Vox in a recent interview, the prerequisites for a safer reopening of the economy are widespread COVID-19 testing, scaled-up contact tracing, protections for the most vulnerable populations and a reinforced hospital system.

None of that is happening in the U.S., and despite a sense that we are managing this pandemic far better than our neighbours to the south, it isn’t happening here either.

540,000 low-wage Canadian workers may be forced to choose between income and health over the next few weeks.

In both countries, epidemiologists say we’ve arrived at a plateau, but there is no evidence yet of any significant downturn in cases in Canada’s COVID-19 hotspots. That echoes what public health officials in Canada have been saying.

Trump is willing to sacrifice the old and unwell on the altar of profit, and some states are eager to force citizens off unemployment benefits by any means necessary. As obviously depraved as that strategy is to many of us, there are voices here calling for Canada to follow his lead. I like to call them shitweasels.

Low-wage workers at the greatest risk

In my response to John Ivison’s piece last week, I noted a study released in March that found one-third of workers earning $14 to $16 per hour were at risk of unemployment during this crisis, while only 1 per cent of those earning over $40 per hour were at risk of losing their jobs.

Over the past week, more data has become available on how this crisis is impacting Canadians, and it all underlines the fact that low-wage workers are the most severely affected and the most put at risk in any premature reopening.

“Earnings losses in the first week of the COVID-lockdown were entirely borne by hourly-paid workers,” according to Statistics Canada data analyzed by University of Waterloo economics professor Mikal Skuterud and research assistant Naomi Jin. Salaried workers have experienced virtually no net employment loss.

Making a guaranteed annual income supplement like CERB permanent would cost less than Canada currently spends dealing with the costs of poverty.

Roughly two-thirds of workers in Canada are paid hourly, and the share of hourly paid workers versus those on salary has been increasing steadily since the mid-nineties.

Meanwhile, close to half of working-age Canadians have now applied for the CERB, the bulk of them being hourly-paid workers whose perceived disposability made them the most likely to be fired as the lockdown shuttered businesses — and now the most likely to be called back to unsafe workplaces in any premature reopening.

Over at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, senior economist David Macdonald crunched the numbers and found that 540,000 low-wage Canadian workers may be forced to choose between income and health over the next few weeks.

“Once workplaces are opened, employers will start to call workers back. If a worker doesn’t return because of concerns about workplace safety, an employer could deem that non-return as quitting and issue the employee a Record of Employment to that effect, disqualifying them from receiving the CERB.”

Drawing on Statistics Canada data, Macdonald found that workers at the highest risk in a reopening — those with the least ability to physically distance at work — are those who earn the least. While over 40 per cent of workers earning under $17 an hour in February were at “high risk” of COVID-19 exposure, that figure was only 11 per cent for those making over $48 an hour.

“As restrictions are lifted, the 540,000 workers making under $19/hr—the bottom third of workers by hourly wage—who had been protected by government-enforced layoff may soon have to choose between health or income. Some will get both if their employers put health before profit and provide adequate protections for workers, even if it squeezes their bottom line.

But other employers will force workers to make an impossible choice.”

Built on a bed of lies

The idea that CERB recipients will be disincentivized to work, the shit sandwich on which the whole callous edifice rests, is a total lie. We’ve seen from the basic income pilot project in Ontario and trials in other jurisdictions that giving people enough money to live on with no strings attached makes them no less likely to work.

More confirmation of this fact has arrived, as the results of one of the largest basic income trials yet were released out of Finland this week. Recipients of a basic income (like CERB, but permanent) were actually slightly more likely to be working than those in the control group, and experienced much higher rates of wellbeing and happiness.

Oh, and another thing: Making a guaranteed annual income supplement like CERB permanent would cost less than Canada currently spends dealing with the costs of poverty.

If the Liberals weren’t so fully captured by corporate Canada, they would follow the numbers and make the CERB permanent.

As Andrew Coyne wrote for the National Post in 2018, the Parliamentary Budget Office has estimated the cost of rolling out a nationwide basic income guarantee modelled on the successful Ontario pilot project would have a net cost of somewhere around $23 billion a year.

That’s a lot, but it pales in comparison to the cost of poverty. A report last year pegged government costs associated with poverty in Ontario alone at around $33 billion annually.

So the question is, why do those who argue that we can’t afford to maintain the CERB until people can truly return to safe workplaces, or better yet make it permanent, want to spend more money dealing with the consequences of poverty?

It’s not about hating the poor (although that often comes with the territory). It’s about maintaining a desperate low-wage workforce willing to do any job for any amount of money. And these days it’s about a desire to sacrifice that workforce to keep the good times rolling.

Callous, immoral, grotesque.

People versus profits

So let’s recap. We know that any reopening at this stage is premature, and likely to increase infection rates and paradoxically keep us all in lockdown for even longer, with all the attendant social ills that come with extended isolation. A premature reopening risks rendering all the sacrifices made over the course of this lockdown, all the parents and grandparents forced to die alone, meaningless.

We also know that many provinces are ignoring the advice of experts like those at Quebec’s institute of public health and plowing ahead with rushed plans to reopen under tremendous pressure from low-wage employers and their obedient proxies in media and politics.

We know that these rushed reopenings will disproportionately affect low-income earners, in many cases making them choose between heath and income. The CERB has a maximum eligibility of four months, meaning anyone who has been receiving it since March will be cut off in July. As Macdonald notes, that’s a really bad plan.

A slight reduction in profits, in exchange for a stronger, healthier and happier society? The horror. What’s next, a wealth tax?

And yet the callous shitweasels in our hopelessly out-of-touch right-wing political parties and the old white men pulling down six figures from our dailies are incensed that the Liberals want to wait until July to force low-wage workers into an impossible choice between health and income.

The CERB, a stipend of last resort that pays less than minimum wage in some provinces, and far less than most of its recipients were receiving from employment, needs to remain in place until this pandemic is well and truly beaten. Otherwise, lives will be lost, lockdowns will go on even longer and the poorest among us will be sacrificed to keep profit margins juicy.

If the Liberals weren’t so fully captured by corporate Canada, they would follow the numbers and make the CERB permanent.

It would save the government money, improve all our collective quality of life and help address the moral failure of children going hungry and people sleeping in the streets in one of the world’s wealthiest countries.

What’s the downside, you ask? Well, it might force minimum-wage employers to raise wages to attract staff.

That would be a good outcome for most of us, but for the callous shitweasels who serve their corporate masters with slavish obedience, it would be unthinkable.

A slight reduction in profits, in exchange for a stronger, healthier and happier society? The horror. What’s next, a wealth tax?

Postscript

Since the beginning of this year, despite the extreme economic uncertainty facing nearly all of us, Ricochet has netted hundreds of dollars a month in new recurring donors. While Postmedia, the U.S.-hedge-fund-owned newspaper chain Ivison works for, begs the government for an injection of hundreds of millions of dollars to keep its doors open, our model is surviving without any significant government support.

That’s because we’re accountable to no one but you. We serve the public interest, not corporate owners. And that’s what I think we all realize we need right now.

We’ve heard that some of you cancelled your Postmedia subscription and transferred that money to Ricochet. I’m sure some have also pulled their money and transferred it to one of the other excellent non-profit independent media outlets in this country. Thankfully, there are many to choose from!

Keep doing that. If you want ideas like this to compete with whatever the C.D. Howe institute tells John Ivison to write next week, we need your support. And so do the many other small outlets doing amazing work. Every dollar you give to any of us will be spent on journalism that serves the public interest — and none of it will be shovelled out the back door to a U.S. hedge fund.

Better media is the first step in building a better society. So let’s get building.

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