With the catastrophic spread of Omicron, many frontline grocery store workers are wondering why they haven’t seen a return to the ‘hero pay’ or ‘hazard pay’ that was given to them during the first wave of the pandemic. While certain companies have provided paltry incentives and bonuses, no increase in wages has been offered by any of the major grocery store chains in the country. Meanwhile, the executives of these companies have generously paid themselves millions of dollars for steering the ship from the safety of their homes while workers have had to bear the brunt of the risk, infection, and danger of the pandemic.
‘Business as usual’
At the beginning of the pandemic, in Mar. 2020, the three major grocery chains (Loblaws, Metro, and Sobeys) gave their employees a two-dollar pay increase. This was met with a lot of support from their frontline staff—many of whom said that they felt appreciated, that the raise was an acknowledgment of the risk they were taking. Jennifer Green, a front-end cash supervisor at a Loblaws in Newfoundland and Labrador, said: “when we got the $2 an hour raise, we felt important.”
This, however, did not stop Galen Weston, the Chairman and President of Loblaws, from deciding in June 2020 (only three months later) that it was the “right time” to end hazard pay. All the other retailers followed suit soon after, and that ‘acknowledgment’ was thrown out the window. According to the bosses, It would seem as though the virus stopped being deadly after the very first wave.
But the dangers of COVID-19 have not disappeared. With the arrival of Omicron, they have only intensified. In the past week, some grocery stores have reported that 30 per cent of workers are calling in sick due to COVID-19, and that number is continuing to rise. Employees are given practically no sick days, meaning that to make ends meet, many are forced to go to work even if they experience symptoms or have been in contact with the virus. In many instances, workers are told to come into work even if they are sick!
The hazard pay premium was only ever seen as a temporary measure—since no one knew exactly how long it would take before things went back to “normal”. After a handful of months, the executives of these companies simply decided that the pandemic was the new “normal”—never mind the fact that over the course of the pandemic they have managed to rake in record breaking profits while sending their staff into a dangerous environment for barely more than minimum wage.
To justify this, the tycoons claim that grocery stores are ‘high-volume, low-margin’ industries. The argument goes that if these stores were to simply raise the wages of all their employees, even by two measly dollars, they wouldn’t be able to operate, or—in other words—make a profit.
Reality, however, shatters the illusion of poor grocery store executives pinching pennies to keep the lights on. Over the last four fiscal quarters, the aptly named Empire Company Ltd. (which owns Sobeys, Foodland, IGA, and other major grocers) managed to rake in approximately $7.36 billion in gross profits. It is not the “high-volume, low margin” nature of these grocery store chains that keeps the wages of their workers to a barely-livable low—it is the insatiable drive for profit, whatever its human cost.
Of the three chains, Sobeys has paid out the most since the beginning of the pandemic—$110 million dollars in hero pay and bonuses to their frontline workers. But divided across their 125,000 employees, that would only average out to roughly $880 for each person. Meanwhile, Michael Medline, the CEO of the aforementioned Empire Company Ltd. gave himself the substantial “hero pay” bonus of $2.71 million at the beginning of the 2021. Apparently Medline considers himself more than 3000 times “the hero” as his employees.
On top of all of this lies a disgraceful irony. With the rate of inflation in Canada reaching more than four per cent, and the cost of food rising by as much as seven per cent, families are now expected to pay $966 more for food this year than they did in 2021. The people who are stocking our shelves will soon not be able to afford the food that’s on them.
Where is the left?
So far, the response from the left-wing and the organized labour movement has been tame, to say the least.
Federal NDP MP Brian Masse, critic for economic development, took on the issue by writing letters to the CEOs of Sobeys, Metro, and Loblaw’s to ask them whether or not they intended to reinstate hazard pay, now that many provinces had put into place new lockdown measures. Loblaws and Metro both declined to respond, and, in the end, only Michael Medline wrote back— and even then only to applaud the amount already paid by his company in bonuses.
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW, representing 26,000 workers) and Jerry Dias, the President of Unifor (representing 310,000 workers) have both called for the reinstatement of hazard pay. Dias in particular spoke candidly on the situation:
“Employees on the front line are at risk every day and yet it’s the executives being rewarded handsomely,” he said. “They’re making record profits but don’t have the decency to pay their employees what they’re worth.”
This is true, but sadly both Dias and the UFCW leadership have shown no signs of mobilizing organized workers. Both have taken to the media to vent their frustrations, but neither have suggested any concrete steps to fight back against the cruelty and greed of these grocery store magnates.
Pleas, whether to the government or to the bosses themselves, will never win concessions. If we truly want essential frontline workers to win a living wage, it must be fought for with walkouts, work refusals, and strikes.
This is what is currently missing. Every day inflation and infection eat away at the endurance of workers across Canada, but as of yet there has been no outlet for much of this frustration to be channeled into genuine change. The organized labour movement must take the lead in fighting for the reinstatement of hazard pay for the millions of frontline workers currently risking their lives.
Hazard pay is more than simply a temporary raise, it is an acknowledgement that these workers are taking on this risk for the rest of society. For this, an extra $2.00 per hour is not nearly sufficient. Our labour leaders shouldn’t hesitate to boldly demand “double hazard pay”—a doubling of regular salary, adjusted to inflation—paid out of the pocket of the pandemic profiteers. This sort of demand would mobilize not only the support of the grocery store workers themselves, but also of other essential frontline workers in all sectors of the economy.
Similarly, decisions on health and safety should not be made by executives. The workers are the ones who are putting themselves at risk by going into work. Decisions concerning their safety should be made democratically amongst themselves, based on the advice of healthcare officials, and not on the greedy whims of a Galen Weston, a Michael Medline, or any other overpaid parasite.
None of these, however, can be achieved without a struggle. So long as decisions are being dictated from above, the security and livelihood of essential workers will always be placed beneath that all-powerful drive for profit. Our struggle for improved wages and safe working conditions must be combined with a broader struggle for the nationalization of these massive chains under democratic workers’ control—not for the sake of profit, but for the benefit of society as a whole.