Chidi Oguamanam is a professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa and a member of the Centre for Health Law Policy & Ethics.
Since the spring of 2020, COVID-19 has disrupted our social and economic order. One of the unravelling consequences of the historic changes wrought by the pandemic is the burden being shouldered unevenly by women and racialized people.
Across all labour and occupational sectors, front-line workers and essential service providers have become sacrificial beasts of burden. They include retail employees, waiters, transit providers, farm workers, meat packers, delivery personnel as well as all cadres of service providers at the middle and bottom of the hierarchical pyramid of health care: registered nurses, practical nurses, personal support workers, live-in caregivers, security personnel and janitors.
Despite the diversity of these occupational and labour categories, they are dominated mainly by Black and other racialized populations – especially immigrants. In the context of the health care sector, front-line workers are mainly women. It is difficult to ignore the role of systemic racism and sexism in the half-hearted treatment of these categories of workers. Employers are able to take advantage of their lack of voice and empowerment amid the government’s failure to take substantive action.
Instead, what politicians and policy-makers have done is single out these workers, who have proven to be the backbone of our survival throughout the health crisis, as “heroes.” There has been no dearth of platitudes directed at them. Citizens also convey their appreciation in platitudes – though, on occasion, some vent their frustrations on these racialized front-line workers too.
There are many moving tales of citizens awed in gratitude, some banging pots (in the early days) and others promoting celebratory acts of communal solidarity over the resilience of our “front-liners.” And, of course, these are all for good reason. A decent society owes a lot to those who go to work at a time of crisis and to the risk of their personal safety, while the majority is able to work from home.
Two years into the pandemic and its various waves, these platitudes have proven to be convenient and fleeting political jingles. The essential nature of the work is not contested. But the racialized and gendered nature of those on the front line has meant that the government can get away with not supporting them with what they deserve for braving all odds; working in and out of season; and attending to their clients through all forms of unpredictable pandemic-induced public health emergencies.
Many of the pay premiums directed at the front-line workers quickly fizzled out after the summer of 2020, despite the work remaining difficult and often dangerous with the emergent variants of the virus. Guaranteed paid sick leave remains a mirage for many. Reporting sick often results in loss of pay – a risky proposition for those who live paycheque to paycheque – or they can conceal their sick status and put others at risk. That’s hardly a fair choice.
In the case of PSWs in long-term care institutions, the working conditions have continued to deteriorate. Even up to the present Omicron wave, staff shortages remain unaddressed. The working environment is increasingly toxic. Polls show staff motivation to be at an all-time low. PSWs and similar care providers are caught in the middle of making impossible decisions that compromise quality of client care while exposing caregivers – and their families – to health hazards, through no fault of their own.
After all this time, aside from fleeting platitudes, there is still no reprieve or shift from the status quo for the racialized and gendered segments of our front-line workers. For them, discrimination and all forms of intimidation and coercion remain the permanent dish on their workplace menu.
In this second Black History Month of the pandemic, governments and people in Canada need to forgo the opportunist rain of platitudes for our front-line workers. There is urgency for permanent policy changes to protect them. Real recognition of heroism includes better legislation for sick pay, pandemic pay, workplace safety measures and wages that reflect the intensity and necessity of the work done.
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