This summer has been one of racial reckoning. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions joined in Black Lives Matter protests around the world, protesting police brutality and systemic racism. While many imagine that Canada is removed from systemic racism, Canada’s economy was built on and still functions on the backs of those who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC). It’s these communities that have been disproportionately bearing the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic – especially BIPOC women.
As YWCA and the Institute for Gender and the Economy’s newly released Feminist Recovery Plan for Canada suggests, we cannot make meaningful progress on economic recovery from this pandemic without rooting out and addressing racism in all its forms. This means undertaking the calls to action for equity and economic justice that BIPOC communities have been advocating for, such as ensuring access to decent work, bolstering BIPOC-led businesses and changing workplace policies and culture.
The essential work that has been fundamental to our crisis response throughout the pandemic is extremely gendered and racialized. Although BIPOC women are overrepresented in essential occupations and have been supporting us through this pandemic, they tend to experience precarious working conditions with limited benefits and low wages.
Take, for example, personal support workers (PSWs), many of whom work at nursing homes caring for elderly COVID-19 patients: a 2010 survey of these workers in Ontario found that 96% identified as women. Forty-two percent identified as racialized, nearly double the percentage of racialized people in the province. Eighteen percent identified as Black, compared to 4% of the population, and 5% identified as Indigenous, compared to 2% of the population.
PSWs are on the frontlines of our pandemic response, working around the clock. Yet they are severely underpaid and often work without protections such as paid sick leave or access to personal protective equipment. The tragic deaths of several PSWs from COVID-19 in Ontario, primarily Black and racialized people, as well as the increased spread of COVID-19 through long-term care homes is in large part due to poor conditions for workers. Their deaths highlight the dire consequences of institutionalized racism.
There are similar stories from migrant farm workers, caregivers and cleaners, among others, who have kept the economy running throughout the pandemic. BIPOC workers are routinely ignored and devalued across sectors, even though they make up a significant proportion of what economist Armine Yalnizyan refers to as the “essential economy.”
There cannot be economic recovery, much less prosperity, without addressing and remedying such inequities through policy.
It’s imperative to urgently address the state of precarious work disproportionately done by BIPOC and women workers. All jobs – especially essential jobs – must have better protections, such as 14 days of paid sick leave and paid family leave. To support those who have lost work, the YWCA and the Institute for Gender and the Economy are also calling on the federal government to increase Employment Insurance benefits to an 85% income-replacement rate for those who are low income.
BIPOC communities have been sharing for decades, if not centuries, what needs to change to make our society inclusive and equitable as we move forward. Recommendations put forth by groups such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the Parliamentary Black Caucus provide roadmaps. Some of those recommendations include increasing funding directed to training, mentorship and other employment programs for BIPOC communities, especially those who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic. Companies and governments should set procurement targets of at least 15% for BIPOC-led businesses and support their development, especially small businesses. A recent survey found that 80% of racialized founders lost contracts, customers and clients during the pandemic – the highest rate of all equity-seeking communities.
The corporate sector can play an important role by changing policies and practices that aren’t inclusive or supportive of BIPOC workers, as well as advocating for public policies that address the root causes of injustice and racism.
Social and economic conditions are deeply interlinked and contribute to health and well-being, or lack thereof. Inequitable conditions have created a perfect storm that has resulted in outsized negative impacts from COVID-19 on BIPOC communities. This pandemic has not only exposed but has deepened the social fault lines that were already present. While Canada needs to collect disaggregated data on the impacts of the pandemic on BIPOC, migrant and all other communities that face inequity and injustice, experts are noting that racism and health inequities are leading to higher rates of COVID-19 in Toronto neighbourhoods with larger Black populations. A recent survey found that high poverty rates among most racialized groups prior to the COVID-19 pandemic make them vulnerable to the financial impact of work disruptions.
Our Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for Canada makes explicit that recovery policies must recognize how systemic racism and gender inequity have been major contributors to Canada’s economic freefall and health crisis. Now, we can build back better from this crisis by making equity a central pillar of recovery, and all sectors should contribute.
If we are truly all in this together, we need to start acting like it.
Carmina Ravanera is a research associate working on post-pandemic gender equity policies at the Institute for Gender and the Economy (GATE) at the University of Toronto.
Anjum Sultana is the national director of public policy and strategic communications at YWCA Canada.
They are co-authors of A Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for Canada: Making the Economy Work for Everyone.