Recognizing Essential Workers on May Day

May 1, International Workers Day, finds its origins in the 1886 Chicago Haymarket strike for the 8 hour day – something we take for granted today. This should give us pause. International Workers Day was established as a day to celebrate workers and their contributions, so that they are not taken for granted.

We all recognize the heroes of this crisis, from the grocery shelf stocker to the meat packing plant worker, who have become essential services and are putting their lives at risk to secure our food supply. Also the long term care workers, who are forced to rely on patching together multiple low paying part time jobs, putting themselves at greater risk. And the low paid temporary foreign workers doing essential work from long term care to farm or poultry plant jobs often with no sick leave, Medical Services Plan coverage, or adequate housing standards. The list goes on.

If we just celebrate these workers by clanging pots or calling them heroes and don’t protect them or give them decent incomes, are we not letting them down?

As we entered the pandemic 48% of Canadians were $200 away from insolvency and 1 in 4 of Greater Victoria’s two-parent families with two children had incomes less than the living wage. COVID has exposed those vulnerabilities in stark relief. Food banks are getting overwhelmed. As a parent with school aged children I was stunned by how much focus our school system was placing on getting meals to families as the crisis evolved. The Greater Victoria School District is providing approximately 10,000 meals weekly to needy families. Many of those in need are the working poor.

To really celebrate the the workers who are risking their lives for us every day, we need to re-imagine how we value work and what we consider to be decent working conditions.

In the recovery following the Black Plague labour shortages meant peasants were able to have more freedoms and better working conditions. COVID will be different. More likely we will see high unemployment, downward pressure on wages and for calls to ring out for austerity.

Lack of sick leave, homelessness, poor pay and working conditions undermine the health and welfare of us all. The impacts are being seen today on municipalities, school districts, local charities and volunteers who, even all together cannot fill the gaps. We will need strong government direction and policy change to ensure a COVID exit that is fair.

This crisis, has both exposed everyday heroes and the massive cracks in our system. This is the day to celebrate those everyday heroes by calling for real change so that they are properly recognized with living wages, sick leave, housing standards and decent working conditions.