As Canada goes boldly into 2022 with record high numbers of COVID-19 cases thanks to the highly contagious Omicron variant, Canadian workers are facing an all too familiar uncertainty. Many of them are losing some or all of their income due to the closures and capacity restrictions enforced due to lockdowns while the current government supports have been drastically cut back and cannot come close to making up the difference. At the same time, benefits for businesses have grown significantly over the past year with new programs and billions of dollars being added to the pot every few months. The deep inequities in the Canadian system reveal that in a capitalist crisis it is always the working class who suffer most.
What little help is being offered to workers by Justin Trudeau and the federal government takes the form of the new Canadian Workers Lockdown Benefit, a far cry from the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit that it replaces. The CERB was a lifeline for workers at the beginning of the pandemic. Even though it could have been more and, without rent relief, most of that money likely ended up in the pockets of landlords, the benefit kept food on the table for many families while the world adjusted to a once-in-a-generation crisis. Once the reality of the pandemic began to set in, however, the government immediately attempted to claw back CERB payments and put in motion plans to reduce support as soon as they could. For a brief moment, the government was doing something to help workers; but back then the pandemic was only supposed to last four months.
Nearly two years later, in the middle of the biggest surge of the pandemic so far, the new CWLB is entirely insufficient to meet the moment. The program was launched in November of 2021 but was totally inaccessible to workers at the time. The benefit is only available in officially designated lockdown zones, described as areas where businesses must close and workers stay home for a minimum of 14 days, areas that were almost non-existent back in November.
Despite the fact that many people were losing pay or their jobs due to climbing COVID-19 cases long before Omicron, anyone in need outside of those exact parameters was out of luck. When lockdowns were finally declared in late December and the benefit was opened up to the public, a new set of restrictions based on the previous year’s income and other factors now limit who can apply even further. If workers can finally access the CWLB, they will find the weekly payments have been reduced from the $500 available from the CERB to $300 ($270 after taxes, or $1,080 total per month). In a country where the average monthly rent is currently $1,817 and food costs are soaring, that amount of money cannot cover anyone’s expenses.
“It’s clear that this is a program designed before Omicron, and when case counts were going down, and governments were looking at how to wind down supports,” said Deena Ladd, executive director of the Workers Action Centre. “It’s shocking.”
Despite COVID-19 cases spreading faster and further than ever before, there has been no indication that CWLB payments will increase and many families are facing some tough decisions. Returning to work despite the health risks may be the only answer.
Canadian businesses, on the other hand, are receiving more government support than ever before. Most of these benefits are in the form of wage, rent, or energy cost subsidies, in some cases covering up to 75 per cent of business expenses. And there are so many subsidies to choose from! To begin with there was the Canada Emergency Business Account and Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, both established at the outset of the pandemic. Those were soon supplemented by the Business Credit Availability Program, the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy, and the Large Employer Emergency Financing Facility which are now joined by the Canada Recovery Hiring Program as well as more targeted benefits such as the Tourism and Hospitality Recovery Program, the Hardest-Hit Business Recovery Program, and the Local Lockdown Program. All in all, there are 21 federal aid programs for businesses compared to the one program for workers, and that is not taking into account provincial programs like in Ontario where the Ontario Business Costs Rebate covers up to 100 per cent of expenses and a further $7.5 billion has been released in six-month, no interest loans to allow businesses to pay their taxes.
All of this constitutes a direct payout straight into the pockets of the ruling class. On the other hand, for small businesses, these programs will not be enough in the face of this recent surge according to Ryan Mallough, senior director of Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses. “There needs to be more. We understand no one wants to see hospitals overwhelmed, we understand the pressure that the healthcare sector is under, but if you’re going to close businesses there needs to be support that is in full and it needs to be immediate.” Even with all these benefits, many small businesses will close permanently over the coming months.
There is another story altogether for big businesses: the government has never been shy about supporting them. In the example of Air Canada, the government issued a series of low-interest loans amounting to $5.4 billion and purchased an equity stake in the company totalling $500 million in order to keep the company afloat. A fair chunk of that money ended up as bonuses for executives.
Clearly, Canada has no issue quickly doling out money to businesses while leaving the working class to survive on crumbs. It is sheer hypocrisy for the Canadian government to act as if the pandemic is already over and reduce worker support when the country is in the grips of its greatest wave of cases yet. Capitalism’s inherent drive for profits at all costs has led to a global vaccine strategy that is all but guaranteed to manufacture new COVID-19 variants combined with domestic policies that leverage the rising cost of living with a lack of jobs to pressure workers into unsafe congregate settings in order to keep the economy rolling. The government’s strategy is no longer to manage the pandemic but to normalize it, and all they want, all they need, is for workers to put their heads down and live with it.
Workers do not have to accept these conditions! Canada’s ruling class has failed to manage COVID-19. Through organization and mass action, workers can demand safe work and full, unconditional support for those who have lost income. The gears of capitalism will grind to a halt if workers stop turning the machine. All it takes is the courage to do it.