COVID-19 gig economy

Down and out in the age of COVID-19

Where is the safety net for gig economy workers and the underemployed?

Gig economy workers are greatly affected during this time of uncertainty…

You may have heard that hospitals and the medical system are unprepared for the coming storm, with looming shortages of respirators and hand sanitizer. All of this is concerning, but much less attention has been paid to a big part of the broader picture. Despite being an affluent, first world country, Canada is woefully ill-equipped to deal with the socio-economic consequences of a crisis like COVID-19.

The civil society and social safety net in Canada have been relentlessly eroded since well before the Mulroney days. Eligibility criteria for unemployment benefits (carefully redefined as “employment insurance”’), welfare and disability have never been stricter. Labour regulations for those who do have employment have never been laxer, as public authorities have allowed the private sector to transform permanent, full-time and often unionized positions into a labyrinth of freelance, part-time, contractual and sub-contracted jobs. While the cost of housing has increased exponentially, social housing and rent control are on life support.

Those on the lower end of the middle-class spectrum often hold two jobs, neither of which offer benefits such as private health insurance or paid vacation time. If you’re currently looking for “from-home” work — to do your civic duty of social distancing, of course — be sure to check out call centres offering six 3.5-hour shifts a week from home; just enough per week to make sure they don’t have to consider you a full-time worker eligible for benefits, and just enough hours per shift to make sure they never have to pay you while you’re on break. This Victorian brand of cynicism is not a clever exploit on the part of employers — it has long been enshrined as standard procedure and simply good business.

Imagine an independent catering company, owned and managed by a lone entrepreneur. Events are being cancelled wholesale, weddings postponed, a whole spring and potentially summer’s worth of income on hold. Imagine a DJ with a schedule chock full of small gigs at local venues closed indefinitely by government mandate. Imagine a bartender who just found a great new cocktail bar for a season’s worth of wages and tips, up in smoke.

Virtually none of these gig economy workers have access to meaningful employment insurance or sick leave. They work in professions that are already undervalued by society, with low wages and no organized labour to represent them. They’re unlikely to have savings to absorb a few weeks (or months) of unemployment. Many will have accumulated debt in the form of student loans, lines of credits or — God forbid — credit card balances. Some will even have bad credit because their debt has long since exceeded their means (try paying $8K of credit card debt at 18.99% interest off of two minimum wage jobs), making them ineligible for debt consolidation. What’s more, the proportion of people in these or similar situations has markedly increased since our so-called recovery from the 2008 financial crisis.

But never fear: the government has promised to inject a billion dollars into… Business Development Canada loans for small businesses to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. These loans, inevitably dependent on good credit, will ultimately amount to yet more debt for entrepreneurs. Even still, small business loans may well help some establishments to pay their workers, at least temporarily. But what of the ineligible, self-employed and marginally employed?

The fact of the matter is that we, as a society, have done everything we can to limit access to social security. Try downloading the Quebec forms for welfare (“aide financière de dernier recours,” which translates as “financial aid as a last resort”). You’ll find that the majority of the questions on the form attempt to establish why you are unable to work, rather than what your needs might be. It’s just inconceivable that we might be able to provide a minimum level of social security, no questions asked.

So how are governments going to provide equitable relief to Canadians during this crisis? Trudeau says that “no Canadian should have to worry about paying rent as a result of COVID-19” (should Canadians ever have to worry about paying rent?). I don’t see how the federal or provincial governments are equipped to live up to that promise, and it’s not even any individual’s fault. We have spent decades making sure that it will be impossible.

On your Facebook feed, you’ll see a degree of solidarity and consensus on the gravity of the situation and the need for responsible decision-making, self-isolation and thoughtfulness towards the vulnerable that is undeniably inspiring (and sometimes undeniably creepy, too). In Montreal, at least, people seem to be very willing to obey the medical directives, avoid contact, wait in line one metre away from each other at the SAQ and stock up their pantries for the coming apocalypse (with toilet paper and other essentials).

But COVID-19 has the potential to really test the mettle of the broader society in its ability to manage a crisis. We may well learn from this and build a stronger foundation. On the other hand, if we can’t handle a bad bout of the flu, you can be damn sure that we will be completely incapable of responding to the ever-more pressing environmental crisis. ■

See how you can support musicians and other gig economy workers during the Coronavirus / COVID-19 crisis here.

For official Canadian info on Coronavirus / COVID-19, click here.

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