Canada’s workers engage MPs during first-ever Virtual Action Week

By Hassan Yussuff, as published in National Newswatch

On any given day of a normal year, Parliament Hill is buzzing with people lobbying elected representatives. According to the federal government’s lobbying commissioner, there were 18,728 monthly communications reports submitted in 2019 20.

Those communications reports were generated in large part by paid, registered lobbyists working with large corporations.

This year, there are far fewer meetings on the Hill but that doesn’t mean that elected representatives aren’t hearing from anyone. They are. And we want to make sure they’re hearing from workers, too. We know that pressing issues are mounting for many workers and communities across the country. In the past six months, people have seen their livelihoods disappear or they are staving off disaster, all while worrying about their health and the health of their families.

Workers want to see governments make decisions that will improve their lives and move Canada forward. They want to trust the government will make decisions based on the needs of everyday working people and of their communities. We only need to look South to see what can go wrong when governments let down their citizens.

In 2019, a study done by the OECD showed trust in government is falling worldwide. In 2019, only 38 per cent of Canadians said they had confidence in the government. The good news is that it has gone up since the pandemic made government more central to our lives than ever, according to a report from Samara Canada. Trust in government now stands at 59 per cent. This should not be taken for granted.

One of the best ways to maintain trust is to encourage citizen engagement in decision making.

This is why we are organizing the first-ever virtual lobbying effort, National Action Week. It’s an opportunity for workers from across the country to participate in our democracy, even in the midst of a pandemic. We are helping them reach out to their elected representatives to tell decision-makers what needs to happen in their communities.

Our hope is that our week of action will not only allow for conversations that will build trust in our democracy, but that these meetings will open the door for further conversations. Knowledge sharing is also essential for trust in democracy, meaning elected representatives should provide information and answer questions from their constituents – and constituents should know to ask questions.

After all, so much has changed and Members of Parliament need to hear from their constituents on what they need to focus on. Millions of people who were employed in March are now dependent on the government for support. As we continue to respond and as we move towards a recovery stage, the Minister of Finance has indicated the government is willing to make more and longer-term investments to provide economic stimulus, given historically low interest rates.

The most important thing right now is to move government investment into those sectors that will offer the most benefit to the most people across the country. The Prime Minister talks about building back better, and there are priorities that can’t be ignored if this government plans to improve the lives of those most affected by this pandemic.

The government made clear in September’s Speech from the Throne that it is listening to the concerns of workers and their families. The speech promised investments to create new jobs, accelerate the implementation of universal national pharmacare and focus on child care and long-term care. Workers across Canada are trusting that the government will include all these investments in the next federal budget and go even further, including raising the federal minimum wage to $15 dollars an hour as promised in the last federal election.

Those who have been working on the front lines without proper protective equipment, those who have watched their loved ones suffer in for-profit long-term care homes, parents who have been stuck with no options for child care, women forced to choose between career and family after all these years of progress deserve support. These workers know where investments need to go and so should their representatives.

They are ready to bring their stories and experiences directly to policy-makers. It’s up to those making decisions to listen carefully and act accordingly in the best interests of the nation’s workers and their families.

Hassan Yussuff is the president of the Canadian Labour Congress. Follow him on Twitter @Hassan_Yussuff

Canada’s unions stand united against all forms of racism and against police violence

As communities across Canada, and around the world, grapple with COVID-19, racialized communities have not only been disproportionately impacted by the health fall-out, but are also dealing with the violent legacy of colonialism, police brutality, and systemic racism.

Canada’s unions are committed to standing in solidarity with racialized and Indigenous communities in upholding principles of equity, justice, and human rights. These are principles central to the labour movement.

The efforts required to undo systemic racism will necessitate difficult and ongoing conversations and the formulation of deliberate strategies to educate, empower, and engage all workers. We all have a responsibility towards dismantling systems that perpetuate racism and inequality and towards rebuilding new ways of promoting the health and well-being of our entire collective.

Following the spate of tragic killings and abuse of racialized and Indigenous people at the hands of police in both the United States and in Canada, a key demand that has emerged from human rights advocates and targeted communities includes a call to defund the police.

The context and meaning of this demand is critical. While the brutal killing of George Floyd earlier this past summer was a galvanizing moment helping to propel anti-Black racism and its impacts into the public consciousness, the long history of police brutality is a key factor.

The traumatic legacies of slavery, oppression and colonization continue to reverberate throughout society and this includes in the ways in which law enforcement agencies have been overpolicing, surveilling, and at times, even killing, members of racialized and Indigenous communities. Racial profiling, so-called ‘random’ street checks, the disproportionate number of Black and Indigenous people in prison, the presence of police in schools and the disproportionate number of violent interventions by police must all be addressed.

The call to divert funding away from police services towards community support is justified when cuts to youth programming, investments in affordable housing and mental health supports, and other key social programs have hurt far too many vulnerable communities. In fact, over the last few decades, there have been considerable increases in police budgets, at the same time as austerity measures eroded public funding for community and social programs and services throughout various levels of government.

In far too many Canadian municipalities, provinces and territories, budget allocations for police services outweigh combined spending on other priorities like public transit, libraries and parks and recreation. This spending has accompanied the increased militarization of police services in Canada, reflected in the purchase of armored vehicles and tactical gear more suited for battlefields than urban and suburban neighbourhoods. Due to the chronic underfunding of social programs, police services are expected to address a host of societal challenges and crises – situations for which their training, culture and mandate are ill-suited.

It is incumbent on working people to demand that public services be assigned towards lifting communities up and helping people reach their fullest potential.

Canada’s unions support efforts to reduce federal, provincial, territorial and municipal budget allocations to police services, and to reinvest these funds toward alternatives to policing, such as community-based health and social services and programs, mental health supports and crisis intervention, public transportation, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, services to prevent and address gender-based violence, addiction treatment and harm reduction programs, among others.

On a broader scale, increased government investments in affordable housing, mental health care, child care and employment supports would have a direct impact on the health and well-being of our most marginalized communities, promoting public safety and addressing the root causes of violence.

Canada’s unions stand in solidarity with the call to defund police budgets, which have continued to grow exponentially as public services, have been reduced or eliminated. The labour movement further supports efforts to look at the ways in which law enforcement agencies have upheld legacies of harm, as well as to re-examine how resources could be better allocated towards strengthening our communities and helping the most vulnerable.

Furthermore, leaders within Canada’s unions reiterate their commitment towards advancing human rights within our own unions; among our staff and leadership, and in collaboration with communities. This will require ongoing efforts, which include education, advocacy, training and resources. We will continue to strive to achieve and model the highest standards of equity and hold ourselves accountable throughout.

Canada’s unions call for mental health supports for all

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the mental health of people across Canada. It is important to recognize the negative impact, and reflect on the stigma still associated with mental illness in our workplaces and communities.

Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW), this week from October 4 to 10, is part of a national public education campaign in Canada to educate communities and organizations about mental illness.

“This is an important opportunity to reflect on the barriers faced by people living with mental illness in their workplace and in their communities,” said Larry Rousseau, Executive Vice-President of the Canadian Labour Congress. “Canada’s path to economic recovery needs to focus on the well-being of workers and their families.”

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s most recent policy advice on COVID-19 and mental health in Canada, “50 percent of Canadians [have] reported worsening mental health since the pandemic began” and “in a survey of Canadian workers, 81 per cent reported that the pandemic is negatively impacting their mental health.”

Participants in these studies outlined increased stress due to high levels of anxiety related to fears about the future, their loved ones, employment outcomes and the overall negative impact of social isolation on mental health.

“We need federal leadership that commits to learning from this crisis, and develops a recovery plan that centres the needs of the most marginalized, and that includes ensuring better mental health support and access to universal, single-payer pharmacare for all,” said Rousseau. “That’s why the campaign we launched on Labour Day demands a recovery that strengthens our public health care system.”

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Canada’s unions have a plan to move us forward

By Hassan Yussuff, as published in The Hill Times

As we transition from reacting to COVID-19 to living with the virus, Canada’s unions are providing a clear blueprint for a robust recovery that leaves no one behind and addresses the inequities laid bare by the pandemic.

Workers and their families have been hit hard by this crisis. Practically overnight, millions of jobs disappeared or were furloughed. Despite the slow reopening, millions of people are still searching for work. With small businesses shuttering and many large corporations declaring bankruptcy, some jobs are gone for good.

Canada’s unions worked closely with the federal government from the beginning, advocating for immediate supports. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit kept people afloat amidst the uncertainty and anxiety of those early weeks and months.

The Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy also helped maintain ties between employers and workers, but take-up was slow. Some employers started to complain that workers were rejecting work and staying on the CERB.

Rather than being a fault of government aid, that some workers preferred to stay home and try to survive on $2,000 a month is a condemnation of the precarity and low wages that far too many workers in this country are experiencing.

In fact, even before COVID-19 hit, almost 50 percent of Canadians said they were on the brink of insolvency. This includes many of the workers who were deemed essential and who were called on to work extra hours at great risk, rewarded with a couple of dollars extra an hour for risking themselves and their families to keep our communities going (extra dollars that many employers have since clawed back, despite the ever-present virus and despite significant profits in certain sectors).

Given that a majority of these workers also have no access to sick leave or benefits, they are left even more vulnerable during a health crisis such as the one we face.

This government has a considerable task ahead. In its upcoming speech from the Throne, it will lay out a path that purportedly aims to benefit all Canadians. Canada’s unions intend to make sure that it lives up to that promise.

Unless we invest in programs and services that address the gaps in our society, we will fail to learn the lessons of this pandemic.

Canada’s unions are putting forth a made-in-Canada plan that is rooted in our way of doing things. We know what American-style cuts and austerity can do to a nation; we needn’t look very far to see how things can go horribly awry when we are in it for ourselves.

This is why we are calling on all levels of government to invest. It’s time to replace lost jobs with better ones by kickstarting the economy with shovel-ready projects and by investing in green infrastructure. It’s time to support care work, including those who educate our youth and those who care for others. And it’s time that all workers have access to paid sick leave and are paid a living wage. Workers also deserve permanent reforms to employment insurance, disability benefits, education and training, as well as retirement security.

We are also calling for a strengthened public health system that includes bolstered funding in the areas of mental health, home care, and long-term care, as well as a long-awaited single-payer, national pharmacare plan.

It is our responsibility to make sure our social services are ready to catch people as they fall. Canada’s economic, health and social goals are inseparable. It’s time to disaster-proof our nation.

We are on the cusp of meaningful social progress. Let’s seize the moment.

Hassan Yussuff is the president of the Canadian Labour Congress. Follow him on Twitter @Hassan_Yussuff

A robust immigration system is key to our recovery

By Hassan Yussuff, as published in The Province

COVID-19 has forced rethinks on many aspects of our lives that we previously took for granted.

That includes thinking about how our communities function, and specifically about who ensures that they continue to, even in times of upheaval.

This has brought more visibility to the workers who many of us don’t often consider: migrant workers, temporary foreign workers, and newcomers who do the jobs that many Canadians won’t.

Even in the midst of a pandemic, these essential workers were hard at work, day in and day out, in order to put food on our table, to take care of our seniors, and to help us all maintain some level of normalcy.

Their contributions point to how invaluable a well-rounded immigration policy would mean to a nation like Canada that relies on immigrants for its prosperity and well-being, especially now as our communities struggle to recover.

This crisis has shone a light on the weaknesses of our current immigration system and demonstrated how workers can easily be taken advantage of, mistreated and/or prevented from fully integrating due to policies and attitudes that are at times discriminatory and tilted in favour of employers rather than towards the rights of workers.

In fact, after hearing stories of abuse this past summer, Canada’s Health Minister, Patty Hajdu, went as far as to call the treatment of some migrant farm workers a “national disgrace”. The Minister pledged to look at how to reform the program. Overall, some 60,000 temporary foreign workers plant and harvest crops each year, often forced to live in cramped and crowded conditions.

Advocates, including the nation’s unions, have long pointed to solutions such as ensuring that all workers be provided with comprehensive workers protections, and that we finally provide pathways for status for workers who want to stay in Canada and contribute like the generations of immigrants before them.

Numerous studies have pointed out that without immigration, we will struggle to sustain the social programs and services that support our society. With a population that is both shrinking and aging, our reliance on immigration remains high. Yet, this year alone, the number of immigrants arriving in Canada has tumbled significantly from this time last year and the country will fall well below its targets (the government will need to increase its future targets to address this or risk an even more sluggish economy).

In the meantime, we can help address these shortfalls immediately by providing pathways to status to workers who are already here or on their way. The federal government has already provided a temporary measure that would allow asylum claimants working in health care to apply for permanent residency. A similar measure should extend to all asylum claimants working to get us through this pandemic. Whether a worker is clearing our hospitals, stocking our warehouses, or picking fruit, they deserve an opportunity to continue their lives here without the uncertainty and anxiety of the unknown. Otherwise, these programs risk becoming exploitative and make us vulnerable when borders shut down.

As for undocumented workers, they, too, deserve the opportunity to become regularized and to live with their families without fear of being imprisoned and deported. It’s why pilot projects to help provide status for those without it are important, yet represent only a stop-gap measure until we implement more permanent ways to provide amnesty to those living and working amongst us.

Furthermore, even high-skilled professional newcomers require more support to ensure Canada remains an attractive destination. Stories of foreign-trained doctors offering their services during the peak of the pandemic and anemic efforts to provide temporary licences are a reminder that we fail to recognize international credentials to our peril. The under-employment and over-qualification of newcomers is far too common, as are the pay gaps facing immigrants, particularly women.

Our rethink on immigration requires we no longer view those considered to have low skills any less valuable than those with university degrees. And those with those degrees deserve to put them to use and to expect fair treatment.

We need a robust system that welcomes everyone who helps make our country stronger, more resilient, and increases our capacity to take care of each other. This is crucial to our collective recovery.

Hassan Yussuff is the president of the Canadian Labour Congress. Follow him on Twitter @Hassan_Yussuff