Jason Russell teaches at SUNY Empire State College and is the author of Canada, A Working History.
Working in Canada over the past year has been a once-in-a-century experience. Co-workers are now thumbnails on Zoom screens, new employees are interviewed and hired virtually, and offices have become time capsules, mostly sitting vacant since March, 2020. Homes became offices and classrooms, domestic and paid work is done at the same time, and delivery drivers seem like the only people routinely ringing doorbells. People who are actually in workplaces converse through masks, have to stay six feet apart and often peer at each other through Plexiglas partitions. The pandemic has at times made it feel like people are living in a science fiction film.
Work, in its different forms, is an intrinsic part of the human experience, and the seeming transformation of it over the past year has been very much on the minds of those of us who sell our labour for money. In Canada, the paid and unpaid work of many people – most of whom toiled anonymously at a wide range of jobs – created the country we now know. Work is not just about economics; it is also a social activity that shapes our collective culture. It is described in books, celebrated in films and lamented in songs.
The working lives of Canadians have been periodically altered by major events, including wars, economic crises and environmental disasters, that have wrought changes on societies. Pandemics are another such crisis, and much of the media and the business community are loudly proclaiming that COVID-19 has fundamentally altered how people will live and work. The idea of everything being measured on a pre- and post-COVID timeline is turning into an article of faith. Few voices are venturing to say that, in fact, COVID may not have the enormous legacy predicted for it.
Looking back to Canada’s past tells us much about the conditions in which our forebears lived and worked, and it provides us with considerable insights into what the future holds for workers in Canada and around the world as more vaccines find their way into people’s arms and countries emerge from the pandemic. COVID has been a grievous ordeal and it will permanently alter many aspects of working life. In other ways, to reference the title of a classic 1980s science-fiction film, it will take us back to the future.
Long before COVID-19 appeared in Canada, illnesses had an impact on work here. The noxious stew of diseases brought by Europeans to what is now North America included smallpox, which arrived in the 16th century and decimated Indigenous people. Effective colonization required a steady supply of workers, and colonial countries ensured that labour would be made available by inducement, coercion and bondage. High mortality rates caused by disease meant that a steady procession of sailing ships crossed the Atlantic Ocean carrying willing and unwilling workers.
Up until the mid-20th century, a lethal array of diseases imperilled society in a way that is largely incomprehensible in contemporary Canada. Polio was particularly dreaded until the middle of the last century. Smallpox persisted until 1979, although major outbreaks were controlled through vaccination. Hepatitis A, scarlet fever, measles, mumps, tuberculosis and whooping cough could be encountered in a person’s daily work environment. Influenza was a major peril, and countless people have already compared COVID to the 1918 influenza. People went to work despite the threat of contracting a serious illness.
The past year has been hard for Canadian workers, but they’ve still benefited from public-health infrastructure and medical treatments that are far beyond the resources that were available to people in the past.
Much attention has been paid to the seemingly enormous impact that technology has brought to workplaces in the year since COVID-19 arrived in Canada. It is indeed true that far more people are working from home than they did prior to March, 2020. Office towers in the financial districts of cities sit mostly empty and there are plenty of predictions they will remain vacant as workers either choose to keep working from home or are directed to do so by their employers.
Technology has made it possible for a lot of work to be done remotely in a way that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. Zoom started off as a video-conferencing platform and has evolved into a part of everyday life for many workers – it’s already a verb.
What would we have done without the ability to work remotely? We would likely have done as people did when they had to head to work before medicine could protect them from perils such as measles and polio: We would have gone anyway.
Several years’ worth of technological advances have been crammed into one year of the pandemic, but the benefits of those advances have been unevenly felt. A recent University of Chicago study concluded that, at best, 37 per cent of jobs can be done entirely remotely. The other 63 per cent require presence at a work location other than a person’s residence.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that less than a quarter of people were working remotely part of the time prior to the pandemic, and about 31 per cent are now working entirely remotely. That is a huge increase, but the bottom line is that most people are going back to offices, factories, restaurants, schools and other work locations after COVID ends; indeed, many have kept doing so throughout the pandemic. Breathless narratives about virtual workplaces are being articulated and consumed by people who actually can work remotely, not by people who have go to work every day.
The divide between who can and cannot work virtually reinforced another divide that has always been part of Canadian society: social class. There is a correlation between education and income when it comes to who could work safely from home and who left for work every day during the pandemic. A teacher, lawyer, journalist, professor or accountant can work from a home office, but an Amazon worker cannot fill orders in his or her living room, nor can a Tim Hortons employee pass coffee and doughnuts out of a kitchen window. There is no option for low wage workers but to trundle off to work with masks on their faces and bottles of hand sanitizer in their pockets.
In the past, during a long event such as the spread of the Bubonic Plague in the 14th century, wealthy people would escape from crowded cities for the comparative safety of their country homes while poor people quarantined at home. Later, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people suffering from tuberculosis were sent away to sanatoriums so they could be treated and hopefully not infect anyone else.
During COVID-19, technology has made it possible for many workers to withdraw into a virtual cocoon and only expose themselves to the threat of the coronavirus at times of their own choosing. Some even moved to sunnier climes or decamped to their cottages, as the virtual workplace provides lots of protection regardless of where a person is located. People such as first responders, health care staff and grocery store workers cannot enjoy such protection.
COVID has accelerated the use of technology for workplace surveillance. Employers have long sought legal methods to control what their workers do on the job and the legal employment relationship is heavily weighted in favour of employers, even in unionized workplaces. The term “managerial prerogative” describes the vast leeway that managers have to run organizations. It originally referred to the rights of kings. Logging into employer servers from home, sitting in front of laptop cameras, driving vehicles equipped with global positioning systems and interacting virtually with colleagues leaves a large cache of data that can be used to monitor job performance and mete out discipline.
Workplace monitoring and timing really began to be part of management practice when Frederick Winslow Taylor, master of the stopwatch, published his hugely influential time and motion study in 1911. Taylor – bane of workers and hero to management – would have surely loved the level of workplace control that contemporary technology enables. Anyone who now extols the virtues of more workplace automation and computerization is not really saying anything revolutionary; they are just standing on the shoulders of Taylor and every other time and motion study devotee who came after him.
This has been the year of the essential worker: nurses, grocery store cashiers, truck drivers and countless others who have been lauded for their heroic efforts through different lockdowns across Canada. But policy makers did not respond with permanent increases to minimum wages, and policy actions again fell short of political rhetoric.
A serious reappraisal of what constitutes essential work means mandating better working conditions for people such as personal support workers and early childhood educators. Workers who staff hospitals, care for the elderly, make sure that food shows up on time, keep transportation systems running, teach children how to read and be kind to each other, and literally ensure the lights stay on have always been essential but have never been held in public esteem equal to the social contributions they make. A professional hockey player is more valued economically for his or her ability to score goals than an intensive care nurse is for providing care to someone recovering from life-threatening injury or illness. The pandemic is unlikely to change that warped calculus.
COVID has again revealed that a lot of essential work is performed by people of colour, and those same people have disproportionately contracted the virus. Low-wage workers who ensure food is safely harvested and processed, packages are delivered on time, and grocery stores and pharmacies are stocked often do not have access to paid sick leave. They live in high-density housing because they cannot afford to live in less cramped spaces, and they take public transit because they cannot afford personal vehicles. Many of those same workers are new Canadians or in the country on work visas.
Hiring people from immigrant and racialized backgrounds for low-paid but essential work is a long-established practice in Canada. American political scientist Adolph L. Reed observed that slavery was a labour relation, and enslaved Africans worked in the Canadian colonies, although not nearly on the magnitude of what occurred in the United States.
Chinese men were chosen for dangerous, back-breaking work on the Canadian Pacific Railway. Poor women from Ireland came to Canada to work as indentured domestic servants in the 19th century. Seasonal farm workers from Jamaica started coming to Canada in the mid-1960s, and post-Second World War immigrants from Southern Europe were assigned arduous and perilous work on construction sites. Indigenous workers have always been near the bottom of the occupational ladder.
Gender also plays a significant role in shaping perceptions of the value of work and who performs it. Unpaid work has long been as central to Canada’s social and economic development as anything done for wages. Moreover, most unpaid work has been performed by women. Establishing a capitalist economy would have been impossible without women’s labour and the children they bore. Families need wage earners, but they also depend heavily on unpaid labour in the home. Raising children, cleaning, cooking and caring for elderly parents are all part of the unpaid task list, and women are usually the people completing it.
The fact that women were juggling the competing pressures of earning incomes while also doing most unpaid domestic work was already recognized before the pandemic, and COVID exponentially worsened the situation. It is now entirely common for women to perform paid work at home while simultaneously doing unpaid domestic work. The lines between work and home have not been this blurred for women in decades. Women whose jobs cannot be done remotely live with the anxiety that they are going into public spaces that could expose them to COVID, and the virus could then be unwittingly brought home.
COVID consequently has not really brought anything new in terms of work and labour trends; it instead reinforced and accelerated what Canadians have long experienced. There are few social trends and practices that are not shaped by deliberate policy decisions. Conspiracy theories aside, the transmission of the COVID-19 virus into humans was not a deliberate policy decision, but everything done in response is a result of the policy making process.
The overall question as Canada emerges from the pandemic, and the possibility of forging a new path, is how people who craft and influence public policy will think about work and labour as the country’s population is vaccinated. More crucially, much depends on how Canadians themselves want to work and live after the pandemic has passed.
The idea of not letting a good crisis go to waste was in popular usage, usually in the business community, before the pandemic started and it has gained renewed currency in the year since. Making use of a crisis does not necessarily have to mean finding ways to make more profit, dilute labour and employment laws, devise ways to make work more precarious and otherwise divide workers based on race, gender, ethnicity and class. Emerging from a catastrophe can instead lead to better directions for a society.
The Second World War is the best modern example, as it brought both tragedy and hope. The war spurred Canadians to agitate for better wages and working conditions, the right to form unions, more widespread home ownership, rights for women, expanded postsecondary education and, ultimately, universal public health care and public pensions, among other policy achievements.
COVID could be a catalyst for similar changes. Introducing universal public child care is a policy choice that would make it much easier for women to fully participate in the labour market. Technology can create new meaningful employment, make existing jobs better, and not be relentlessly used for workplace monitoring and control. Immigration can improve the lives of people coming to Canada and those already here. People are often exhorted to follow their passion to achieve fulfilling careers, but passion does not pay the bills. More equitable incomes, including higher minimum wages, should consequently be a public policy priority.
Canadians need to realize they wield influence over their working lives. They can choose to support political parties that advocate for progressive labour and employment laws, organize unions if they want a collective voice on the job and use their power as consumers to support companies that treat workers decently.
The pandemic has caused grievous loss of life and economic upheaval, and put people around the world under enormous duress. Selling their labour is what 85 per cent of Canadians do when they are hired to perform a job, whether it is for a few hours or many years. The other 15 per cent are self-employed, but they ultimately sell their mental and physical labour as well.
Only retirement comes close to freeing people from labour market dynamics while they are still alive. Canadians owe it to themselves and each other to forge new postpandemic paths and not accept and perpetuate practices and policies that harmed them in the past. This is work worth doing.
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