Last weekend, workers at the three biggest grocery store chains in Canada ceased to be heroes. The employees of Loblaws/Superstore, Sobeys and Metro, who have been cleaning, stocking, and serving the rest of us our vital necessities since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, were stripped of the $2 per hour pandemic pay premium that began in March.
The pay raise was always meant to end, eventually. In its March 2020 quarterly report to shareholders, Loblaws described the pay premium as a temporary way of supporting colleagues in stores and distribution centres. But the end of the raise, not even three months later, seems like it has come out of nowhere. In his letter to employees on Friday, June 12, the CEO of Empire Group (the parent company of Sobeys and Metro) explained that with daily life and commerce settling into a new normal, company executives felt that this was a natural time to end our Hero Pay program.
But what has really changed? Cashiers now have a plexiglass shield to protect them from customers, and other measures, such as the process of spraying down grocery carts and the directional arrows in the aisles, have been worked out. In many provinces, the curve has been flattened and the risk of infection is lowered, for now. But the fundamental danger of being in public during an outbreak one which will only be known after its spreading and the stress and anxiety employees must feel going to work, have not changed much. In many jurisdictions, cases are still rising, and everywhere, future waves of COVID-19 are probable. The essential nature of grocery store labour has not changed either.
Moreover, COVID-19 exposed the ugly, indefensible unfairness of how people are compensated for their work in Canada and most other places, and that has not changed at all.
In the first quarter of 2020, the grocers now rolling back pay premiums made record profits. Industry voices tell us that grocery stores have narrow margins and the pay premiums are unsustainable. But the margins are wide enough to pay shareholders handsomely. In return for steadily increasing dividends, the majority of those shareholders have greedily voted against proposals for a living wage for retail employees, as Loblaws shareholders did in 2018. The companys CEO, Galen Weston, has been a strong, loud opponent of even basic minimum wage increases.
It is not impossible to pay grocery store workers a living wage. It is only impossible to do it while also allowing the richest Canadians to get richer. By ending the pay premiums, we are merely rolling the rug back down over the unjustifiable inequalities the pandemic made visible for a moment.
When COVID-19 first started spreading around the globe, some observers said it was an equalizer it didnt care if you were rich or poor. But after only a few weeks, it was obvious that, like so many other things, the pandemic would exacerbate existing inequalities. The impacts it has had on workers vary dramatically, but not randomly. Statistics Canada has shown that the highest-educated and the highest-income earners are far more likely to be able to work from home and continue to collect their full salary. Those who are paid less, and paid hourly, are more likely to have to continue to put themselves at greater risk, in public, in order to get paid.
As the anthropologist David Graeber has pointed out, most of those higher-income folks the ones who are now working from home could fall off the face of the Earth tomorrow and you wouldnt notice for a long time. As he put it recently, Its hard to know what else to conclude when literally millions of highly paid office workers have been forced to stay away from the office, to reduce their work to 10 or 15 minutes a day, or often nothing at all, without having the slightest impact on those essential functions that keep the public fed, clothed, distracted and alive.
But if the grocery store workers stop showing up? What happens then? In March, their employers were willing to concede that they were essential, and deserved more, as retail workers advocates have been pointing out for decades. Nothing about grocery store workers role in the economy or importance in our lives has changed, but their claim to being essential has been stripped of them. It makes no sense unless our only objective is protecting private corporations profits.
In the stores where you and I buy our groceries, workers now make minimum wage or close to it. Thus, it is possible to work full-time and have difficulty affording the food on the shelves, while shareholders pore over their quarterly earnings reports and think of ways to make more money.
This isnt just a math or money problem. Its a moral problem. A boycott wont work, because grocery stores have consolidated until there are so few options were forced to choose the least worst among them. Still, there are many ways to solve it, from retail unionization to living wage legislation to a Basic Income Guarantee. But leaving it up to the benevolence of private corporations and their shareholders should finally be off the table.
Karen Foster is associate professor, sociology and social anthropology, Dalhousie University, and director of the Rural Futures Research Centre.
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