Maytree blog

Protecting the rights of workers hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic

Published on 15/12/2020

The low-wage, immigrant, racialized, and migrant workers we work with at the Ontario Employment Education and Research Centre (OEERC) have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Many work in temporary, part-time, contract, or precarious jobs, and often in more than one workplace. Even before the pandemic, many workers were living in poverty due to low wages, inadequate hours, and high costs of living, and facing racism and other systemic barriers that affected their lives and well-being.

During the COVID-19 crisis, these are the workers who have been hardest hit by job loss and hours reductions. They are workers with precarious immigration status who have been unable to access income supports like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), Employment Insurance, or the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB). They are also migrant workers and frontline workers who have continued to work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for low wages and without adequate protections. They work in grocery stores, caregiving, healthcare, cleaning, warehouses, agriculture, food delivery, and all the other sectors that keep our economy (and lives) running.

To respond to the challenges and financial hardship workers in our networks are facing, the OEERC and the Workers’ Action Centre, alongside our community partners, have been working hard to come up with ways to provide support. For the first time, we have set up a robust system for delivering emergency supports.

Since April 2020, Workers’ Action Centre organizers have been arranging weekly delivery or pick-up of food boxes. Over 180 households in our networks now receive a food box each week from FoodShare. We have also made Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), including masks and gloves, available for pick-up alongside food boxes. This has allowed workers to protect themselves while they continued to work on the frontline, in cleaning, healthcare, or other sectors.

We’ve collaborated with the Workers’ Action Centre and migrant worker organizations across the province to distribute direct income support to about 250 workers and additional support in grocery cards to workers who have been struggling financially, including many who could not access available government income supports. Not only has this provided emergency supports to workers most in need, it has also strengthened our networks of solidarity and alliances that are proving invaluable as we respond collectively to this crisis through advocacy and organizing.

So many workers in cleaning, construction, factory jobs, and other sectors have lost work during this pandemic. The emergency supports we’ve been able to provide can be the difference between putting food on the table or not, or making rent at the end of the month. It’s incredibly difficult to find work in the city right now, and many workers we know have been unable to access government income supports. One single mother lost her job in construction just weeks before giving birth to her first child. Grocery cards allowed her to buy essentials for her baby, and weekly food boxes have helped her access food. We have also been able to work with her to reach other working mothers in the Latinx community. They are now benefiting from a community that connects them with available supports and shares information and strategies for navigating their rights in the workplace.

Veronica Zaragoza, Organizer, Workers’ Action Centre

As workers access these emergency supports, organizers are also providing information about workers’ rights, including upcoming events and workshops, as well as connecting workers with needed supports for mental health, access to Wi-Fi, or other referrals. This has become a key opportunity for building relationships with workers who are now becoming more involved and taking leadership in different aspects of our work.

In the fall of 2020, 160 workers who are active with the Workers’ Action Centre have been supported to undertake a community outreach project. This ensures that up-to-date information about workers’ rights is reaching workers in neighborhoods and language communities across the Greater Toronto Area. Education materials on workers’ rights and navigating income supports are being distributed in six languages – Spanish, Tamil, Mandarin, Bengali, Punjabi, and English.

Financial hardship and high unemployment have also created intense pressure on workers to accept lower wages and working conditions; exploitation at work is increasing. Information about workers’ rights is crucial to support workers to navigate the return to work, assert their rights, and protect themselves at work. The Workers’ Rights Hotline is receiving a high volume of calls from workers with questions about their rights or seeking support addressing rights violations.

Continuing to offer multilingual workshops on workers’ rights has also been absolutely critical. Workshops have moved primarily online, with webinars and workshops offered in different languages. Since March 2020, over 9,200 workers have been reached through these workshops. Topics include how to access income supports, job-protected leave provisions, right to refuse unsafe work, strategies for staying safe at work, workers’ entitlements when they are laid off or had hours cut, and other workplace rights.

We are hearing from workers, who are often in crisis, as they navigate the new world of work under COVID-19. Many workers calling us can’t afford to put their own health at risk by traveling in overcrowded public transportation or are worried their employers are not taking necessary health and safety precautions in their workplace. We have been supporting workers who have been fired for not returning to work because they had to take care of their children. There is a lot of fear among workers about getting sick and being fired. Other workers are going back to work, but facing reduced wages for doing the same work as before COVID-19. Especially for cleaners, work has intensified with no increase in pay. Wage theft complaints on our hotline are increasing. With thousands out of work and not able to survive on emergency income benefits, many workers are incredibly vulnerable right now.

Deena Ladd, Executive Director, Workers’ Action Centre

The OEERC and Workers’ Action Centre were supported to provide emergency supports by the Government of Canada’s Emergency Support Fund, the Atkinson Foundation’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Grant in partnership with OCASI, the Metcalf Foundation, and Community Food Centres Canada.

Brynne Sinclair-Waters is Executive Director of the Ontario Employment Education and Research Centre (OEERC).


To respond to the challenges and financial hardship workers in their networks are facing, the OEERC and the Workers’ Action Centre, alongside community partners, have been working hard to come up with ways to provide support.