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.