Community, Labour Studies, History, International Studies

What's the meaning of May Day in the age of COVID-19?

May 01, 2020
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By Christine Lyons

Around the world, May Day 2020 is going to look a little different than in previous years. 

The COVID-19 virus is straining many nations’ healthcare systems and forcing communities everywhere to practise “physical distancing.” While many workers move to remote work conditions, essential services are maintained by frontline workers in healthcare, food supply, delivery and sanitation services, to name a few. 

In many communities, healthcare workers are being cheered on nightly at 7:00 pm while lovingly-made banners and hearts decorate neighbourhood windows, thanking those essential workers who are “holding the line.” 

SFU professor in History Mark Leier points out, “May Day is not a day when society celebrates workers” but rather, “from its beginnings with the fight for the eight-hour work day in 1886, it has been a day workers take to declare their solidarity and their desire for a better world.” 

Seldom has the need for a better world been more apparent. Even as these essential workers are celebrated, many of them face (and have faced for a long time) extremely precarious working conditions. 

As SFU professors Kendra Strauss in Labour Studies, and Gerardo Otero in International Studies  point out, among these vulnerable workers are caregivers and cleaners in seniors care homes, Amazon employees and other delivery service providers, and the many temporary foreign workers on farms and in slaughterhouses in Canada and the U.S.

These workers face little or no job security or benefits, low or less-than minimum wage pay while dealing with employers’ demands for productivity and overtime. Meanwhile, they are at a high risk of being infected with COVID-19 (the hot-spots for coronavirus outbreaks in B.C., for example, are long term care homes and at least two poultry processing plants).  

Read more from these three professors, who provide their thoughts on the rights and support for workers locally and internationally this May Day.  

Kendra Strauss, Labour Studies

The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated starkly that wealth and value in our societies are generated by labour. The elites of our financialized and globalized economy have promoted the idea that workers are expendable and that investments in labour and social welfare are costs to be minimized rather than investments. This crisis has shown us how wrong these ideas are. Those who have been underpaid and undervalued, like care workers, cleaners and grocery store workers, are suddenly celebrated as essential while the government has had to top up low wages and provide employment insurance and sickness benefits to those who are not covered. 

At the same time, even as unemployment has skyrocketed, we as a society have not stopped working: many of us, especially women, are doing more unpaid work to care for loved ones, teach children at home, and keep our households clean and fed. COVID-19 has shone a light on gendered, racialized and classed inequalities in our economy and society. When the crisis is over it cannot be back to business as usual, where the costs of the crisis are downloaded through cuts to wages and public spending and the wealthy benefit from unprecedented fiscal stimulus and bailout packages. Workers create wealth and deserve a society in which they earn an equal share. 

  • For more detailed analysis of the impact and policy implications of COVID-19 on the seniors care sector, read “Time to end profit-making in seniors’ care,” a policy note authored by Kendra Strauss and Andrew Longhurst from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. 

Mark Leier, History

Historically, May Day is not a day when society celebrates workers. From its beginnings with the fight for the eight-hour day in 1886, it has been a day workers take to declare their solidarity and their desire for a better world. Working people around the world have been under attack since the 1970s. Canada is a less equal country than it was 50 years ago: wages have stagnated, unemployment is high, taxes have been shifted from the rich and corporations onto working people and laws have been changed to make it harder to form unions and bargain. On top of that, workers’ hard-won social security measures—health care, education, employment insurance and welfare—have been reduced. 

Our current medical crisis illuminates these weaknesses and shows how medical problems are also economic problems. The way to support workers is to support their—our—efforts for higher wages, an end to unemployment and direct government investment to create well-paying jobs. That is, by supporting programs to reverse the trends of the last 50 years and to move forward to design and build a Canada that shows its respect for workers by paying them well and ensuring that everyone has access to good jobs, good health care and an economy that benefits all people, not just the rich and the corporations. That will take work, but I am very optimistic, because I know we can do better. 

I might add that the pandemic shows clearly who does the important work in our society. The tragedy of it, and thus the importance of May Day, is that those who create the wealth and do the vital work are paid terribly, while those who contribute nothing to our society become millionaires and billionaires. May Day, and this one in particular, shows the cleavages in our society and offers a way forward.

  • For an innovative account of the history of May Day, check out May Day: A Graphic History of Protest (Between the Lines Press 2012) which Leier co-authored with Robin Folvik, Sean Carleton, illustrated by Sam Bradd and Trevor McKilligan. 

Gerardo Otero, International Studies

The depth in vulnerability of health care systems and precarious work relations of neoliberal capitalism have been laid bare by the new coronavirus pandemic. Four tragic examples are given here: nursing homes, where over 70 percent of the fatalities due to COVID-19 have taken place; food production, especially slaughterhouses, where many workers have become ill and some died; Amazon and delivery services workers, who perform critical services and remain active without having proper health insurance; and farmworkers, most of them temporary foreign workers, who must be quarantined before they start work in Canada. In each of these critical sectors, precarious forms of labour have generated tremendous vulnerabilities in each respective system. It could be said that the formal sector of workers with full benefits depends to a very large extent on the existence of precarious workers in other sectors. 

Nursing homes have been privatized for decades, so profits have been contingent on the exploitation of precarious workers with no benefits and low wages. The number of residents getting COVID-19, the illness brought about by the new coronavirus, has been out of all proportion with the rest of society. This may be in part due to their advanced age, but also to the labour conditions under which nursing homes are run. Several workers in nursing homes have become infected too and many left their jobs to avoid the risk. The key problem in work relations here is that few of these workers have full-time jobs with benefits. Instead, most of them have to work at several nursing homes to make ends meet—and still have no benefits. 

Many workers at slaughterhouses and their communities have become infected with COVID-19, with many of them being temporary foreign workers. This is the case both in Canada and the United States, where large, consolidated operations have become dominant. In Canada, for instance, just a handful of operations accounts for over 80 per cent of meat and chicken production. Worker vulnerability resides in the fact that they labour in close proximity to each other, and their living quarters often have four or more workers sleeping in a single room. 

Amazon workers must also do their jobs in close proximity to other colleagues. The New York Times published an article about how a worker who tried to protest about the health risks involved in his job got fired, presumably for putting other workers at risk by calling for the organization of a union. Even more dramatically, workers in delivery services must keep working without having proper personal protective equipment or health insurance. Ironically, they are procuring goods to workers whose firms have locked down while putting themselves at risk.

Finally, much of Canadian agriculture depends on foreign “temporary” workers who have been coming to this country since 1966. There’s nothing temporary about Canada’s dependence on these workers, except their rights: fewer than those of permanent residents or citizens. Those arriving through the federal Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), mostly from Mexico, must be quarantined for 14 days before being able to work. The federal government has pitched in $1,500 for each of these workers to help farmers offset this cost, as it is doubtful that Canadian workers would be willing to work at the low wages and in the harsh conditions that prevail in agriculture. This is manually-skilled labour that would likely require salaries of twice the near-minimum wages that SAWP workers are paid. In fact, a farmer in Quebec told the Globe and Mail that it takes 2.5 Quebecers to do the work of one worker from Guatemala.

Precarity is the common thread of work in the above-mentioned sectors. A salient—and troubling—feature of neoliberal capitalism is that the condition for profitability in a wide range of sectors is the existence of cheap and precarious labour in other sectors. Canada has the third cheapest food in the world, measured as the average share of household expenditures in food. But the price is precarious labour for many.