The COVID-19 pandemic, its economic impact, and the recent protests regarding the systemic oppression of people of colour have all highlighted the need for robust protections for workers in Canada. As protests continue around the world, we must reflect on systemic racism in Canada. Throughout Canadian society, structural inequalities create vulnerability that manifests in precarious employment. Precarious employment has many definitions, but generally references employment that is uncertain, low paying, and with limited benefits and protections. If we hope to eliminate precarious employment, we need additional protections for workers.

Ontario Reduces Protections for Employees During the Pandemic

The early socio-demographic data in Ottawa shows that racialized groups and immigrants are over-represented in COVID-19 diagnoses compared to their relative population size. Diverse communities in Ottawa have rates of COVID-19 almost twice of those communities with the least diversity. Similar trends are being reported across the country. The economic effects of coronavirus are also being borne by precarious workers.

The existing legislation governing employment relationships in Canada does not prevent precarious employment. As a result, many employers rely on precarious employment as part of their business model. While there has been some progress in holding employers accountable, many businesses that form part of the ‘gig’ economy have exploited this model. We saw this recently with Foodora’s exit from Canada following an Ontario Labour Relations Board decision that would have allowed its employees to unionize.

While gaps already existed in employment legislation, some protections for workers have been removed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  For example, the Ontario government recently amended the Employment Standards Act with a new regulation creating Infectious Disease Emergency Leave. This regulation essentially prevents employees from claiming constructive dismissal under the Employment Standards Act when their hours are reduced or eliminated for an extended period due to COVID-19.

Migrant Workers: A Case Study in Precarious Employment

While precarious employment can create vulnerability, it also compounds vulnerability that may already exist. The spread of COVID-19 within the migrant worker community is an example of compounded vulnerability: Migrant workers are an essential component of Ontario’s commercial agriculture, but they have long been a vulnerable and marginalized community as a result of several factors, including their immigration status, employment conditions, and exclusion from some labour relations legislation. In Ontario, agricultural workers are governed by a separate labour relations statute with fewer protections than the one that covers most Ontario employees. In late May 2020, an outbreak of COVID-19 began in southwestern Ontario, and by June, at least 187 migrant workers across southwestern Ontario had tested positive for COVID-19. By July, it was reported that almost 1,000 migrant farm workers have tested positive for COVID-19.

The Role of Unions in Preventing Precarious Employment

Marginalized communities are more likely to work in precarious, low-paying, and part-time employment. The data so far has shown that individuals with post-secondary education and high-earning dual income households are more likely to be able to work from home, therefore they have a lower likelihood of work interruption because of the pandemic.

One of the ways workers’ employment conditions can be protected is through unions. Unions can use the strength of a united collective to push for better working conditions, higher salaries, and job protections. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown just how important these rights are for workers. While some precarious workers are unionized, many are not.

You can learn more about employment rights and how labour organization movements have protected workers through the Canadian Human Rights Museum’s exhibit Rights on the Job, on now until October 2020.

What Now?

All workers have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, whether they are on the front lines, risking their lives to protect and provide for their communities, working from home to help stop the spread of COVID-19, or have had their work hours reduced or eliminated. All workers deserve to be protected. No workers should have to rely on precarious employment.

As a community, we must better protect precarious workers. This can include supporting the labour movement, encouraging unionization, pushing legislators to adopt broader protections for workers, combatting structural inequalities, and engaging in these endeavours through an anti-racist lens. If you have questions about your specific employment situation, we encourage you to seek legal advice.

[This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice, which cannot be given without an assessment of your individual circumstances.]