As the second wave drags on and Toronto and Peel have entered lockdown, everyone wants to know: how did we find ourselves in this situation? The right-wing politicians and the media have put the blame on individuals for socializing. In Brampton’s case, they are blaming racialized workers for the particularly bad outbreak there. However, the hard numbers show that the most significant driver of the pandemic has been unsafe workplaces. We find ourselves in the situation that we are in today because of negligent bosses, cutting costs to maximize profits with no regard for the health and safety of their workers.
Racialized Workers Blamed for the Pandemic
In Ontario, the Toronto and Peel regions have been the main centres of the outbreak. They entered lockdown on Monday, Nov. 23. Brampton was the worst hit. According to the media and right-wing politicians, this is because Brampton residents are having big weddings, live in multigenerational households and ignore government instructions. On the topic of Brampton’s high infection rate, Doug Ford said: “I understand that a lot of cultures have massive weddings, bringing people from all over the world. You just can’t do it.” This comment is hypocritical coming from Ford, who himself attended a wedding of over 50 people in August! His comments about big weddings in Brampton specifically are mainly directed at Brampton’s large South Asian population, which makes up about half of the city’s total residents. What the media and politicians mean, but dare not say out loud, is that Brampton’s high COVID-19 spread is happening because there are too many brown people in the city. There is no actual indication that racialized workers are having larger and more frequent gatherings than white people, but that is of no concern to the media and right-wing politicians.
Negligent Bosses Across Canada
In reality, across Canada the main driver of COVID-19 is unsafe workplaces. At many workplaces, negligent bosses have chosen not to follow public health protocols, which would include giving workers personal protective equipment (PPE) and enforcing social distancing. They do not want to spend the money. As a result, tens of thousands of workers across Canada have gotten COVID-19 at work, but the government is not keeping track of how many exactly. To begin to get a rough idea for ourselves, we can start by looking at the number of workers who submitted claims that they contracted COVID-19 at work to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). Over 26,000 workers have submitted such claims! However, this figure is a gross underestimate of the total number of workplace related infections. “Frontline workers”, which include workers in the health-care sector, are not included in this figure, because they do not qualify for WSIB if they contract COVID-19 on the job. Frontline workers are the most likely to contract COVID-19 on the job and they make up a quarter of the workforce, but nobody is keeping track of how many thousands of them have gotten infected at work. Another group at high risk of work-related infection is low-wage workers. Their employers are most likely to ignore public health guidelines. There is no way of knowing how many thousands of these workers have been infected at work either, because they are the least likely to know about their right to submit a claim to WSIB in the event they get sick at work.
Negligent bosses put their employees at risk when they neglect workplace safety, but they also put their employees at risk when they give them low wages. Low-wage workers cannot afford to protect themselves from the virus in their day-to-day lives. For example, in order to get to and from work they must carpool or take public transit. During rush hour, hundreds of workers are crammed within tight quarters on the subway. Low-wage workers cannot even afford to be safe in their own homes, because they are forced to live with roommates, or in multigenerational households, or in high-rise apartments. We have no way of measuring how many thousands of workers have gotten COVID-19 on transit or in their homes because their employers refused to pay them enough to stay safe. Any infections that are caused by low wages should be considered work-related infections.
Essential Workers Live in Brampton
With this in mind, it is not hard to determine the real reason why Brampton has become a locus of infection. Compared to the rest of the region, Brampton is home to more essential workers, working in sectors with a high risk of infection such as manufacturing, distribution and trucking. Brampton East MPP Gurratan Singh has brought attention to this issue on social media and in his interviews. In one incident, the interviewer tried to place blame for the spread of the virus on racialized workers, emphasizing “getting the message to the community, to get people to understand the severity of the coronavirus,” Gurratan pointed out that the largest areas of spread happen in workplaces, “they go to a workplace that’s not following COVID-19 guidelines, then they’re going to be at risk and they’re going to go home and spread that sickness. That’s a part of the conversation that’s not happening right now.”
Indeed, the mainstream media does not report on what goes on in these workplaces, or on where outbreaks happen. According to the Peel Region website, in Brampton there have been 53 outbreaks at workplaces (excluding long-term care homes, schools and childcare centres). How many of these outbreaks have the media reported? One. They have reported on one workplace-related outbreak in the city, back in May, when an outbreak happened at the Maple Lodge Foods poultry plant and killed one worker. The business received some negative attention for killing a worker. Since then, the region of Peel has protected killer bosses from facing a similar fate.
In September, a whopping 61 workers were infected by an outbreak at a manufacturing plant in Mississauga. Despite the massive scale of this outbreak, we do not even know the name of this business! This is because the business owner asked to be kept anonymous, and the government and media dutifully obliged. The CBC explains, “As it stands, companies can decide whether to voluntarily announce a major outbreak in their workplace.” Additionally, the Peel regional council has threatened to punish workers who announce that their workplace had an outbreak if the employer has decided to remain anonymous. Workers found in violation could be fined $100,000. An institution found in violation could be fined up to $500,000, in addition to civil litigation. By punishing whistleblowers, the government is putting the private profit of businesses ahead of the public’s right to information that affects their health. As a result, the mainstream media is not reporting the identities of these businesses. There is nothing stopping the mainstream media from reporting on this undemocratic law itself, though. If the so-called journalists at Canada’s largest publications cared about journalistic integrity, they would defy this attack on the press, or at least bring attention to it. Unfortunately for us, Canada’s hard-hitting journalists are too busy fanning the flames of racism on behalf of their corporate masters. The media and the government silently look on as negligent bosses kill workers.
Capitalism is the Disease
Negligent bosses are the reason that we are experiencing a second wave. They are the people who hold the real power in our society, and they care more about profits than they do about our lives. As long as they are in charge, they will continue to put profits over people. The government and the media cover up this reality by blaming individual workers, and using racism to distract us from the real source of the problem. They would prefer that workers blame each other for the pandemic. They want old workers to blame young workers for seeing their friends, and white workers to blame South Asian workers from Brampton. When workers are blaming each other, they will not blame the real culprits: the bosses and the governments that represent them.
It is crucial that the working class stays united in the face of the lies that the ruling class uses to divide us. We must stay united and organize against our real enemies, the bosses. They value money more than they value our health and safety, so we should not allow them to continue to be the decision makers. It is high time that working people took control of their workplaces and ran them the way they ought to be run. If workers were in charge of their own workplaces and working conditions, everybody would get the PPE and other provisions they need to work in a safe environment. Non-essential workplaces would be temporarily shut down, and the temporarily laid off workers would receive full pay until they could return to work. Essential workers would be given double hazard pay for their service. Workers make the world run, we should have the right to a safe work environment and decent pay. Some people disagree. They say that as a society, we cannot afford these measures. This is simply not true. During the pandemic, Canada’s 20 richest billionaires got $37 billion richer. That wealth could have gone to the workers, but the billionaires who run society decided it should go to their offshore bank accounts. As a result of their callousness, thousands have died preventable deaths. The wealth is there. It is simply in the wrong hands.
For the workers to run society, we require organization. In Canada, the working class has massive organizations to call its own, such as the trade unions and the NDP. Unfortunately, during this pandemic these organizations have largely fallen short of their task of organizing strikes around issues of workplace safety and low pay. The current leadership of the unions and the NDP could have done this at any point in the last year, but chose not to. It is not too late to change course, but it is unlikely the current labour leadership is up to the task. The bosses and their governments continue to completely bungle the pandemic response while our labour leaders twiddle their thumbs. The working class is the most powerful force in society, and in Canada it is highly organized, but it’s organizations lack a fighting leadership. It is the task of socialists to build up a leadership that will dare to mobilize the full force of the working class, and dare to win.