Good times at the top of the food chain aren’t being felt at the bottom

May 4, 2020

COVID-19 has meant hard times for many Canadians.

On the health front, more than 50,000 of us have contracted the virus. Tragically, more than 3,000 have died.

On the economic front, many businesses are shut down; they don’t know how, when, or if they will reopen. With employers on lockdown, more than 7 million workers are receiving emergency help from government. Across the country, a vast army of Canadians is taking on debt they don’t know how they’ll repay. Some are losing all they’ve worked for.

But the pain isn’t being shared equally.

Under orders to stay home if possible, we’ve changed our ways. We don’t go to restaurants now; we go to grocery stores once a week, stock up, and cook at home. We don’t go to malls now; we order online and have essentials (and non-essentials) delivered. While many businesses are failing, a select few are booming. For them, COVID-19 is a gold rush.

The magnitude of that gold rush is now becoming clear. In the first quarter of 2020, the biggest Canadian grocer, Loblaws, estimates the pandemic increased its revenues by $751 million. Sales are up at the Metro chain, and Sobeys as well. Amazon, the online sales and delivery service, has seen a massive surge in demand, with stronger-than-expected revenues.

COVID-19 will be a windfall for the shareholders of these companies; including Loblaws’ Galen Weston Jr., who owns almost half of all Loblaws common shares.

Those windfall profits did not arise out of thin air. They are the result of real people processing food and other goods, filling orders, packing, loading, shipping, stocking, delivering — all day long.

In the midst of this pandemic, businesses deemed “essential” are seeing earnings and profits grow as most of us try to stay home and stay safe. But workers in these industries cannot do that. There is a sharp divide between those who can work from home and those who make working from home possible. These workers put their health, and their families’ health, at risk so the rest of us can protect ours.

Essential workers deserve all our support. They deserve fair treatment. It is good that the some employers are paying $2 an hour more, or thereabouts, to workers during the pandemic — what Sobey’s calls “hero pay.”

These workers were essential when many of these same employers in 2017 were at the forefront of those opposing a higher minimum wage in Ontario and Alberta. Galen Weston called planned increases to $15 an hour “aggressive” and lamented that they would cost his companies $190 million. In 2018, Loblaws shareholders turned down a proposal to pay employees a living wage.

These workers will be no less essential when the pandemic passes. They deserve better — now and in the future.

In 2019, grocery workers earned, on average, $17.51 an hour, just 68 per cent of the average industrial wage. Warehousing and storage work is essential to getting goods to our homes. In this industry, workers bring in just over $23 an hour, 8 per cent less than the industrial average. (Amazon, the giant in this sector, is notorious for violating worker rights.)

Workers in essential businesses tend to be racialized — in warehousing and storage, 37 per cent are in this category according to 2016 data. And, they are often recent immigrants, more than one-in-five workers in meat processing have been in Canada for less than 10 years, and 40 per cent are racialized.

At $22 an hour, on average, earnings in this industry are 15 per cent below the average industrial wage. This is an industry where the health risks are well known; one meat plant in Alberta has been linked to 1,200 cases of COVID-19. Weekly bonuses do not compensate for this kind of risk.

COVID-19 has given us a gift: a new awareness of the workers we depend on. Some are in health care, some are packing our groceries, some are ringing our doorbells. All these workers deserve a living wage and good working conditions. Governments must step up now and ensure these workers get the respect they deserve.

As it turns out, we can’t live without them.

Sheila Block is a senior economist with the Ontario office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.This commentary was originally published in the Toronto Star.