The COVID-19 pandemic shed light on pre-existing and growing inequalities within the Canadian job market.
The onset of the pandemic in March and April 2020 resulted in a reported loss of more than three million jobs across Canada. According to Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey, Ontario lost 355,300 jobs in 2020, the largest annual loss of employment on record.
The province’s annual unemployment rate jumped to 9.6% in 2020, the highest since 1993. In addition to job losses, Ontario’s financial watchdog, the Financial Accountability Office (FAO), also found that more than 765,000 Ontario residents worked fewer hours last year.
The unemployment rate in Toronto was about 5.5% at the start of the pandemic. It reached a high of 14.7% in July and ended the year at 10.7%.
The shutdown of non-essential services caused severe economic consequences, especially for those in low-income jobs, exposing and increasing existing inequalities of wealth, gender and race. More than a year later, these issues persist.
The Canadian labour market began recovering last summer after the initial crash, but the rate of employment gains slowed down by the fall, and employment losses continued to impact Canadians. Ontario lost more than 153,000 jobs in January alone. Employment fell faster for core-aged women than men and was particularly acute for mothers with elementary-aged children. With schools closed and students learning remotely, in January, parents across the country saw the largest monthly jobs decline since April 2020.
"“The pandemic has been a moment of reckoning for Canadians to really rethink and come out stronger and better than we ever were before”.
The hardest hit group was young workers. Youth unemployment jumped to 22% with the hardest hit sector being accommodation and food services, with a reported 110,000 job losses. Female workers also experienced larger job losses compared to male workers across all age groups. Young workers aged 15–24 were hit hard by the pandemic, with employment declining at nearly five times the pace of job losses for workers over 25.
“As we come out of this pandemic and begin working toward a sustainable workforce, we must really start to consider the workers who have been most affected by COVID-19. This includes racialized workers, immigrant workers, indigenous workers, women workers, young workers, all who are some of the most precarious workers in our labour market. So, we have to ensure the labour, economic and social policies are there that are targeted toward the lives that workers live”, says Peggy Sattler, MPP for London West.
Human rights groups and experts have begun providing recommendations to governing bodies on how to ensure rights are protected. One such individual is Rhiannon Rosalind, CEO of the Economic Club of Canada and Co-Founder of the Global Institute for Conscious Economics. She is advocating for increased social measures across Canada which, she says, are necessary to adequately combat the current economic crisis. Such measures include adding more sick days, mental health sick leave, national childcare strategies, as well as affordable housing and universal basic income.
“These issues existed long before the pandemic and we don’t want to see them still entrenched in our systems long after. One of the most critical issues is the mental health and wellbeing of our labour force. It is one of the most profoundly important issues that we need to think about. We need to start to think about how we can build economic and social infrastructure to support our people”, says Rosalind.
This starts, she asserts, with holding companies and governments accountable.
Canada is still a long way from returning to its pre-pandemic economy, and while short-term measures like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) were implemented by the federal government in an effort to counter these inequalities, their execution created economic consequences that experts say will persist for years. In March, the federal auditor general said the government missed chances to flag fraudulent claims for emergency benefits last year, potentially paying money to insolvent companies, and would now have to rely on costly, years-long efforts to recoup the $97.6-billion Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and the $74-billion CERB.
Though this does not paint a hopeful picture, some think the pandemic was a wake-up call for Canada.
“This crisis has been in the making for a long time before the pandemic and we now have a real opportunity to fix these things in a fundamental way, but that means making the link between all of the issues [the pandemic exposed]”, says Deena Ladd, Executive Director, Workers’ Action Centre.
This means working to shift public sentiment about low-wage workers and creating environments and systems that are conducive to productivity, says Rosalind.
“More and more people are going to be holding different organizations and governments accountable in new ways, which is actually really exciting. We’re not there yet, but I believe we can get there. The pandemic has been a moment of reckoning for Canadians to really rethink and come out stronger and better than we ever were before”.
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Labour Force Resiliency and Wellness: The Post-Pandemic Outlook for Workers
On 15 April, UNACTO hosted a rights-based discussion to spotlight discrepancies on access to paid sick leave and gender disparity across organizations while examining work-life and labour legislation and the urgent policy measures needed to support businesses in the face of these issues.