Jul 7, 2021

BC’s reopening plans must address highly unequal pandemic impacts


As a successful vaccination campaign spurs broader reopening of BC’s economy, we are all feeling the excitement of a more relaxed summer. But in the rush to get back to a semblance of normal, it would be a huge mistake to return to the pre-pandemic status quo of undervaluing and underpaying the front-line caring and service work that enables the rest of our economy to function.

BC’s economic recovery has been slightly faster than in most other provinces and we are likely to see relatively strong job creation numbers this summer. However, the encouraging top-level statistics hide important inequalities that will become a roadblock to an inclusive recovery unless explicitly addressed.

Racialized communities continue to experience higher unemployment, are more likely to work in low-wage jobs with few if any benefits and face greater financial insecurity. Recent immigrants and Indigenous workers also see a much slower recovery as do workers aged 15 to 24, especially young women.

Now is a crucial time for governments and employers to lead a transition to an inclusive and just prosperity.

A report I’ve just published with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Inequality, Employment and COVID-19, examines the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 on BC’s job market over the first full year of the pandemic and recommends policy measures for a more inclusive economy.

The encouraging top-level statistics hide important inequalities. 

While COVID-19 created unprecedented disruption for everyone, what stands out are the pandemic’s highly unequal impacts on British Columbians depending on race, class and gender. Lower-paid workers in part-time, temporary, more precarious jobs were more likely to lose their jobs or majority of hours in the early days of the pandemic and have seen a slower recovery. Female, Indigenous and racialized workers are more likely to be employed in low-wage jobs than their white or male peers and were more severely impacted. These workers also bore the brunt of the pandemic impacts in another important way—they were more likely to be among those putting their health at risk in essential jobs on the front lines.

The pandemic has highlighted how much of our economy relies on unpaid labour—mostly shouldered by women—as well as on undervalued jobs in female-dominated industries staffed largely by racialized workers. Caregiving demands continue to affect women’s ability to fully participate in paid work—especially for mothers with younger children and single parents.

Despite solid job creation numbers, long-term unemployment—defined as being unemployed for six months or more—has more than tripled in BC since the pandemic started. As of May 2021 (the latest data available), more than 51,000 workers fell into this category, indicating that many who lost their jobs in the initial lockdown still struggle to find work.

Without targeted supports for workers in heavily impacted sectors and for those unemployed for a long period of time, we risk cementing long-term consequences from pandemic-induced job losses, especially for racialized and younger workers.

The pandemic has highlighted how much of our economy relies on unpaid labour, mostly shouldered by women.

Building a more just, inclusive and sustainable economy in BC as we recover from the pandemic will require all hands on deck. In addition to well-coordinated efforts from all levels of government, we’ll need business, local communities and the non-profit sector to step up and actively contribute.

As the reopening spurs new job creation, we must work together to end undervaluing low-wage work and make every job a good job with a living wage, good working conditions and access to basic benefits like paid sick leave.

My report proposes a three-prong policy framework for BC’s government to foster an inclusive recovery:

  1. make large-scale investments in crucial public services, especially in the care economy (health care, child care and education).
  2. ensure better jobs for everyone by modernizing workplace rights and protections.
  3. overhaul income and social supports to plug the gaping holes in our social safety net exposed so clearly by the pandemic.

Prioritizing the economic security of those most impacted by COVID-19—including low-wage workers, racialized and Indigenous people, women, young workers, and British Columbians experiencing poverty—is the only way to tackle long-standing income and wealth inequalities that have worsened during the pandemic.

UP-BCThis research is part of Understanding Precarity in BC (UP-BC), a research and public engagement initiative investigating precarious work and multi-dimensional precarity in British Columbia. UP-BC is jointly led by Simon Fraser University’s Morgan Centre for Labour Research and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives BC Office, and brings together four BC universities, 26 community-based organizations and more than 80 academic and community researchers and collaborators. The partnership is supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). For more information about UP-BC visit understandingprecarity.ca.

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