In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, when many workers are struggling to make ends meet as they experience layoffs or unpaid time off, there is a group of workers forced to continue to work despite a high risk of infection for themselves and their families: essential workers. These include doctors, nurses, pharmacists, workers in the social services, grocery store clerks, cleaners, sanitation workers, public transit workers and many more.

In the Public Service Labour Relations Act, the federal government of Canada defines an essential service as “a service, facility, or activity that is or will be at any time, necessary for the safety or security of the public or a segment of society.” Workers themselves have no say in whether their position is determined to be essential—it is determined by the government in conjunction with employers. In addition, provinces have started specifically designating essential services not identified in the federal act. In Ontario, for instance, construction workers building condominiums are included in the province’s list of “essential workers”. Being deemed an essential service means that the workplace cannot close even during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Working conditions made worse by years of austerity

Most essential workers have had to cope with poor working conditions since long before COVID-19. Years of cuts and privatization from all levels of government have meant that public services were struggling to keep up with service-use before the virus. The effects of these cuts are now magnified by the pandemic and the result is potential damage to the health and safety of both workers and clients.

Health-care facilities don’t have the beds or ventilators needed to keep up with the rise of COVID-19, nor the personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to guard health-care workers from the virus. Social service programs face chronic understaffing as cuts to funding have caused layoffs and hiring freezes. Janitorial workers are criminally underpaid and often don’t have the equipment they need to stay safe and work effectively. Transit workers are exposed to the germs of hundreds of passengers a day with little to no protection even while a deadly virus is spreading. Shelters struggle to cope with a surge of people seeking shelter and a strong possibility that this number will spike as people face eviction for unpaid rent. The lack of space in shelters means that people are crammed in tight quarters where the virus could spread easily and rapidly among residents and staff. This is the culmination of years of cuts, which made many essential workplaces hazardous even before coronavirus.

Essential workplaces are being completely hobbled by demand and lack of resources, which puts the health and safety of both service users and workers at risk. Many essential workplaces including hospitals, group homes, and long-term care facilities are relying on donations of protective equipment and cleaning products from the public to scrape by. At one shelter in Hamilton, staff were told that due to a lack of PPE, they would need to reuse their equipment even after exposure to someone with symptoms of COVID-19. Additionally, there is very little support for essential workers who need to safely isolate themselves from their families or housemates to avoid potentially spreading the virus to them. A nurse in London is living in her garage when she is not at work to keep her family safe. Another essential worker related that due to the small size of her apartment, if she has any symptoms she is going to have to sleep in her car to avoid passing it to her immunocompromised partner. Essential workers are putting their health and safety on the line, as well as that of their families, and their employers are not doing enough to protect and support them.

Essential workers exempt from labour rights

Many of the jobs that essential workers do are exempt or partially exempt from provincial and territorial workplace standards laws. For workers who are not usually exempt from the protections of these laws, “exceptional circumstances” such as natural disasters and pandemics mean that many labour rights are temporarily stripped away during the crisis so that services can continue to operate. This means that the right to legally strike is taken away; there are no limits on the number of hours that staff can be made to work in a day or week, no minimum time off between shifts, and no right to call in sick. Unlike workers who are either choosing or are forced into self-isolation to protect their health and the health of the general public, essential workers cannot legally do this unless they are infected. During a pandemic, employers can fire essential workers for doing anything that would “get in the way” of providing uninterrupted services.

Workers fight back against unsafe work conditions

Without protection from labour laws, essential workers are taking it in their own hands to demand better working conditions. On March 12, a dozen Toronto transit workers walked off the job after refusing unsafe work, citing concerns with poor cleaning of streetcars. In Hamilton, more than half of the city’s sanitation workers refused work on March 23 due to a lack of PPE supplied by the municipal government and concerns about coming into contact with garbage contaminated by the virus. While both the transit and sanitation workers are now back to work after negotiations with employers, these actions show that essential workers have the power and are willing to fight for safer working conditions.

Workers’ control of all essential services

In the capitalist system, profits come before human lives. Essential workers are being put at unnecessary risk due to years of cuts and can get fired if they refuse to work in such conditions. Profiteering must end in all essential services. All essential services must be expropriated and brought under workers’ control to increase the capacity of these services to help people in need and mitigate the effects of decades of cuts.

Expropriate empty or underused housing to house the homeless, thus eliminating the need for shelters and many other services to continue running. No endangerment of workers’ lives! All essential workers must have access to protective equipment and fair staffing so that workers can get the rest they need to stay healthy. Workers must be able to democratically make decisions on how to best keep themselves safe and serve those in need.