What is the value of ‘essential’?

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May 3, 2020

What is the value of ‘essential’?

Written by Robin V. Sears for the Toronto Star. Click here to read the original.

What community, with any pretence of fairness or equity, deems it acceptable to pay its essential workers less than two per cent of the compensation of a senior corporate litigator? Lawyers are useful, often important to have access to, but essential? Rarely.

Private nursing home aides and orderlies are the definition of essential. Always. Many make less than $20 an hour. A senior litigator can charge 50 times that. Not to mention the obscene compensation paid to our top 50 CEOs, none of whom receive less than $10 million a year, enough to hire 250 poorly paid health workers. It is this kind of shocking inequity that the pandemic has thrown a powerful searchlight on.

No middle class Canadian, even one with the deepest commitment to social justice, can be blamed for casting a blind eye to homeless beggars on Canada’s streets, or ignoring stories of the plight of home care workers struggling with two jobs to survive barely above minimum wage. The problems seemed too deep and the political will too feeble, so most of us just walked on.

But as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said so eloquently last week, his two greatest nightmares at the beginning the COVID-19 crisis were that New Yorkers as a whole would simply say, “No, I don’t think so, Cuomo. It’s too much, you’re being political.” But his second nightmare was even scarier than the first.

It was that essential workers would say, “Well, if everyone must stay home to stay safe, so will I.” He graciously acknowledged the hundreds of thousands of fire, police, EMTs, nurses and orderlies, transit workers and delivery people who did show up, observing that it was nothing he said, or their bosses demanded, rather it was their values as human beings and professionals that motivated them to turn day after risky exhausting day.

So now what are we going to do for the heroes of this unique battle? Clapping and cheerful children’s window signs were good morale boosters for a few weeks. But how about decent pay? Is the man who was essential to saving your grandmother’s life in a nursing home, really worth less than half the annual salary of average Canadians?

The vast public sector is mostly represented by tough and well-managed public sector unions. Perhaps as citizens we can communicate to their employers how disgraceful we regard governments forcing strikes over two per cent salary increases. The top ups for essential workers can be made permanent. The politics of austerity in a post pandemic recovery and rebuilding moment will seem simply brain-dead.

No government can order a trucking firm, or a delivery service, let alone a private nursing home to raise salaries. They could require salary level disclosure, however, where any public funds are concerned. Ontario has a naming and shaming “Sunshine List” for the highest paid public employees. Why not a similar published list, by organization, for all employers who receive any form of funding from any level of government for the other end of the salary scale?

There will always remain the determination of some employers to pay as little as possible, to scramble to the bottom in a search for profit and market share. It has proved painfully difficult for private sector unions to organize the smaller groups of their employees.

Perhaps for the large number of poorly paid workers, or the gig economy precariat, we could use the power of social marketing to apply pressure. The “fair trade” movement has slowly raised standards and compensation for commodities from much poorer nations. They encourage their members to display their certification of membership and compliance. Why not a similarly framed “fair pay” project, where trucks, restaurants, and nursing homes could display large signs saying, “We are proud to be part of the Fair Pay family.” Backed by a social marketing campaign encouraging customers to favour those employers might nudge some to pay closer to decent wages.

The hard right small business lobby will no doubt claim that such a campaign would bankrupt too many family-owned businesses. To which we should be able to respond, “Many of these people risked their lives to save ours. We believe that Canadians will never again support the impoverishment of the essential workers in every community. Many would be easily persuaded to spend a small amount more for their essential services.” And we can hope that perhaps it is even true.