They’re the workers keeping Canada safe and healthy in the midst of a pandemic. But some — like cashiers — bring home just around a quarter of the average Canadian’s annual income.
From food processing to warehouses to delivery services, the workers deemed essential to maintaining the country’s vital supply chain are significantly more likely to be low-wage and racialized compared to the rest of the labour market, according to new statistics from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
In some cases, they are bringing home less than half of the average Canadian worker a year.
“In the midst of a pandemic, many of us are going back to the essentials. We need to put food on the table for ourselves and our families. We need to have the medications that we require. And as there have been many new reports on, we all need toilet paper,” said Sheila Block, a senior economist with the CCPA.
“To keep us in these essentials, we rely on these workers whose work has often been undervalued and who are often marginalized.”
The CCPA study relied on 2016 census data, which showed average annual earnings across the entire Canadian economy stood at around $49,500. Analyzing the earnings of workers in essential jobs by both industry and occupation, Block’s research found that grocery store workers — a category that includes managers — earned on average half of that. Cashiers took home just 26 per cent.
Light duty cleaners fared poorly too, earning just over 40 per cent of the national average. Couriers and door-to-door messengers brought home just over 50 per cent.
Racialized workers make up 21 per cent of the total workforce in Canada, but they were overrepresented in sectors deemed essential during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CCPA’s analysis found.
In warehousing and storage, for example, racialized workers made up 37 per cent of the workforce; in food manufacturing, that figure was 30 per cent.
Kulwinder Singh, a truck driver based out of Mississauga, says he is working 10 to 12 hour days bringing goods to Shoppers Drug Mart, Sobeys, and the LCBO. He says the deliveries he makes every day are “essential” — but he’s afraid to come home at the end of his shift to his wife and daughter.
“It’s very risky,” he said.
As an independent owner/operator, he is technically self-employed — meaning he has no health insurance, no medical leave, and no access to protective equipment except for what he purchases himself.
“Everything I’m paying for out of my own pocket,” he said, adding that some companies will not let him use washroom facilities to wash his hands.
The CCPA study notes that many of the sectors deemed essential have low unionization rates; in Canada, less than 8 per cent of retail workers have a union.
Many essential workers — including truck drivers and most gig workers — are classified as independent contractors, meaning they struggle to join unions and or access basic employment protections.
“There is a real divide between the people who can self isolate and who can work from home and the people that we rely on to make that possible,” said Block.
“We have to be particularly concerned that we are relying on industries that have a history of rights violations in this time. These rights violations have historically been threatening to workers’ health for sure and sometimes lives,” she added.
“Now we are actually putting the health of the public at risk if we don’t have good enforcement of health standards.”
Some companies, including Amazon and Loblaws, are offering employees a $2 an hour premium for working during the COVID-19 pandemic — measures Block called a “welcome but insufficient response.”
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“We have to really look at governments to respond in a longer term manner by increasing minimum wages, easing access to unionization, and increasing both protections and enforcement under minimum employment standards,” she added.
Last week, federal labour minister Filomena Tassi said experts at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety were drawing up best health and safety practices to share with provincial labour ministries for at-risk workplaces such as trucking and food processing.
Enacting 21 emergency leave days during the pandemic — plus seven permanent paid sick days — is also a critical step at the provincial level, Block said.
“We absolutely need these workers to be able to afford to go home if they’re sick,” she said.
“We know these people who we are relying on are low-paid workers, and that in all circumstances they should be paid a wage that is one you can live on,” she added.
“I think this pandemic and our reliance on these workers really highlights inequities that are ongoing.”