THE STANDING SENATE COMMITTEE ON SOCIAL AFFAIRS, SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
OTTAWA, Wednesday, May 27, 2020
The Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology met by videoconference this day at 11:30 a.m. [ET] to study the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Senator Chantal Petitclerc (Chair) in the chair.
The Chair: Honourable senators, before we begin, I would like to remind you of a few items.
First, senators are asked to have their microphones muted at all times, unless recognized by name by the chair, and they will be responsible for turning their microphones on and off during the meeting. Before speaking, please wait until you are recognized by name. Once you’ve been recognized, please pause for a few seconds to let the audio signal catch up to you. When you are speaking, please speak slowly and have the microphone close to your mouth. If you have chosen an interpretation channel, I also ask that members speak only in the language of the channel.
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Good morning. Welcome to the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology.
My name is Chantal Petitclerc, and I’m a senator from Quebec. I have the pleasure and privilege to be chairing this virtual meeting.
Before we give the floor to our witnesses, I would like to introduce the senators who are participating in this meeting. We are pleased to have with us Senator Lankin, Senator Munson, Senator Miville-Dechêne, Senator Pate, Senator LaBoucane-Benson, Senator Cormier, Senator Black, Senator Griffin, Senator Plett, Senator Dasko, Senator Manning, Senator Forest-Niesing, Senator Seidman, Senator Mégie, Senator Omidvar, Senator Poirier, Senator Moodie and Senator Kutcher.
Welcome to this committee.
Today, we continue the study on the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. You will recall that on April 11, 2020, the Senate passed a motion authorizing this committee to examine and report on the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This committee has held two meetings, during which it has heard from various federal departments and representatives of health care professions. Today, the committee will hear from witnesses representing other essential workers.
Without further ado, let me introduce our first witnesses for today. We have with us Jerry Dias, National President of Unifor, Jeff Wilkins, National President of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, and Syed Hussan, Executive Director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.
We will begin with opening remarks from Mr. Dias, followed by Mr. Wilkins and then Mr. Hussan. You can go ahead, Mr. Dias.
Jerry Dias, National President, Unifor: Thank you and good morning, Madam Chair and members of the standing committee. I’m going to read my report because I only have five minutes.
My name is Jerry Dias, and I’m the National President of Unifor, Canada’s largest trade union in the private sector. I appreciate the invitation to share Unifor’s views on the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and I hope my views can help advance the committee’s work.
The senators may recall that just weeks ago Unifor suffered the loss of one of our members, Leonard Rodriques, a personal support worker in Toronto working in supportive housing. He contracted the coronavirus while at work. He was on the front lines with no access to personal protective equipment, forced to purchase his own supplies at the local dollar store, if you can believe it.
To say this is disgraceful is an understatement. It is frightening to know that this is the reality for so many Canadians, so many workers in Canada right now. One thing is clear: this crisis has brought many of Canada’s structural weaknesses to the surface.
In the early stages of the pandemic response, the federal government moved quickly to construct a new income support system, once it became clear our Employment Insurance program could not handle the flood of claims funnelling through it. Sadly, even if the EI system had not crashed, millions of workers could not qualify for these benefits anyway, despite having paid into EI for their entire working lives.
Despite the good work government did to move money to workers in need through the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, gaps remain. Last week, I spoke to the House Finance Committee and shared my frustration that thousands of workers are denied supplemental unemployment benefits, money the government is preventing employers from paying.
It is also important to note that as millions of CERB claims expire in July, a second wave of claimants will flood the EI system. Unifor has recommended emergency changes to Minister Qualtrough to help avoid a second wave crisis, and I would be happy to share those proposals with this committee, if interested.
Addressing these issues is our immediate challenge. Developing an inclusive, equitable and responsive income security system for the long term is the bigger one.
This crisis has shone a spotlight on the low pay and harsh working conditions many workers face, including those deemed essential like PSWs and supermarket clerks. It has also brought into clear view the gender pay divisions of care and service work and how deeply undervalued this work is.
While we applaud the federal government for supporting pay premiums and advocating for paid sick days, we encourage them to keep on the path toward labour standards reform, including a new federal minimum wage of at least $15 an hour amongst other needed changes. Provinces must follow suit.
We recognize, too, that income security has as much to do with employment as it does with other affordability issues such as housing and rent, transit and mobility, drug coverage and child care. These issues matter as much to a seamless economic restart plan today as they do to developing a vision for a better, fairer Canada tomorrow.
This pandemic has also shown us how fragile and tenuous our global supply chains are, built over decades of globalization and free trade deals. We do not produce enough of the things we need, which has become painfully obvious now when we need them. Whether it is sorely needed PPE or other goods, we need to better develop our domestic supply chains, strategically, to sustain our economy and stabilize jobs.
This requires a more active and engaged government, a government working in the public interest with a direct hand in making more of the goods and running more of the services this country relies on, especially our long-term care services. The damning report by the Canadian Armed Forces in Ontario spells out just how bad the situation is.
That brings me back to Leonard, a worker, a brother, a father who literally gave his life for this struggle, someone paid a fraction of his worth to this country, in an industry where he was left to fend for himself. We couldn’t even give him a damn mask. We owe it to Leonard to think bigger and demand better. In its final report, I urge this committee to do just that.
The Chair: Thank you very much, Mr. Dias.
Jeff Wilkins, National President, Union of Canadian Correctional Officers: Good afternoon, Madam Chair and members of this committee. My name is Jeff Wilkins, and I am the National President of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers. I greatly appreciate both the invitation and the opportunity to speak with you all today, and hopefully I can help answer some very important questions that you may have regarding the government’s response to COVID-19.
I would first like to express my pride in representing such an incredible group of professionals who have worked through this pandemic and continue their work in the face of the invisible threat that we have named COVID-19. Before this global pandemic, our members worked daily in one of the most dangerous environments imaginable, and today, in the midst of a global crisis, they bravely continue their work with an additional personal risk, and for this they have to be commended.
The members of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, or UCCO-SACC-CSN, have only ever asked one thing from the government outside of our negotiations, and that is to have the protections in place to make sure that all potential dangers to our health and safety are mitigated to every reasonable extent. This demand remains in the face of COVID-19.
Correctional officers as first responders are not able to simply go home. Just like other front-line workers, we need the proper protection to do our work safely. However, safe work looks much different in an institutional setting than any other area of Canadian society. Our members are required to constantly balance the threat of the virus itself with the threat of institutional unrest.
One major issue that has affected our membership in this crisis is the conflicting advice from different provincial jurisdictions of public health and the Public Health Agency of Canada. This has proven problematic for our members in the areas of viral testing, social distancing bylaws as well as contact-tracing protocols. Each of these are very important weapons in the fight against this virus. However, each is managed differently for our members depending on the province in which they live or work. Some provinces would test our members if they were suspected of having been in contact with a known case, while others would not test unless someone was symptomatic. At the onset of the virus, some provinces quickly limited group gatherings while some did not, and some provinces had different rules for what was defined as close contact in a contact-tracing investigation. These issues of jurisdiction are ones that raise various issues for our members.
Another major issue is one of personal protective equipment and mask wearing within our institutions. The correctional service was very late to engage the various levels of our health and safety committees with regard to the policy and use of PPE. It was late in March that the first meeting of the national health and safety committee was called, and consultation continued well into April before any personal protective equipment guidelines were sent to the locals for consultation. I can only chalk this delayed response up to a lack of preparedness by both public health and the Correctional Service.
Our members also experienced a significant cultural shift with regard to face coverings. Before the announcement by Dr. Tam in April, our members faced discipline if they chose to wear a mask that was not prescribed by the employer, and today they face discipline if they do not wear one. In my opinion, this advice was too late, as we were already experiencing some significant outbreaks. I question why this guidance was not already contained in a global playbook on the pandemic response. Because I believe had wearing a mask been part of the culture at the beginning of this crisis, I believe that some of our outbreak sites might not have been impacted to the extent that they were.
Since our first case of COVID-19 toward the end of March in the Quebec region, five of our 49 institutions have experienced significant outbreaks, and we have had almost 100 of our members infected by the virus.
Over the past two and a half months, our members have proudly continued their work, but they have grown tired and anxious for an end to this pandemic. The past two and a half months, however, will not come without a cost. I want to impress upon this committee that the government will need to take real action and calculated steps now and most certainly in the wake of this crisis to protect and accommodate the mental health of correctional officers. It is no secret that there exists a strong correlation between an increased risk of mental injury and the correctional officer occupation. Our members are working under extraordinary circumstances and in heightened states of anxiety, which will undoubtedly have significant impact on well-being and mental health, and it needs to become an area of immediate focus.
To conclude, working through this crisis, it is very clear that not only the correctional service but Canada as a whole was ill-prepared for this pandemic. Though the service did react each time a local crisis emerged, the fight against the virus has been reactionary in nature. In hindsight, always being perfect, however, I believe had proper steps been taken when the seriousness of this crisis started to be widely known and had real consultation occurred with local front-line officers and the union, many of our institutions would have been much better prepared. We must remain vigilant and ready for potential future waves of this virus, but we must also start to think of safe ways that we can get back to what will become a new normal. UCCO-SACC-CSN demands that the government adequately consults all stakeholders in our return to normal operations and weighs every decision in the interest of health and safety.
The Chair: Thank you very much.
Syed Hussan, Executive Director, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change: Thank you so much for inviting me to speak to you today on behalf of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, a coalition of 27 migrant-led organizations and allies. I am also on the coordinating committee of the Migrant Rights Network, Canada’s national migrant alliance. Jointly, we include almost all groups of migrant agricultural workers, care workers, migrant or international students, migrant sex workers and undocumented people.
According to the most conservative estimate, there are 1.6 million temporary residents in Canada. In other words, one in every 23 people in the country is a non-permanent resident. Migrants are essential workers. Our members grow food and take care of children, the sick and the elderly. They are cleaners, construction workers, personal support workers, delivery workers, retail and grocery workers and warehouse workers. We sustain Canada, yet migrants have been left out almost entirely from Canada’s COVID-19 response. The extent of this exclusion is immense, but today I’ll focus on three major areas. My written submission includes detailed policy proposals on which my remarks are based.
First, health care. Except for Ontario, all other provinces and territories are denying health care in whole or in part to many migrants. In many places, even COVID-19-related testing and treatment is not available. Where services are available in policy, they are inaccessible in reality. For example, many migrant farm workers in Ontario were immediately placed in quarantine on arrival and thus not able to activate their cellphones. As a result, they cannot call public health agencies or access health clinics, which have moved most service to the phone.
Second, rights at work and income supports. Migrants that have been continuing to work during COVID-19 are facing immense exploitation but are unable to refuse unsafe work because of their temporary immigration status. For example, migrant care workers on tied work permits have seen a massive increase in their hours of work because families are at home. Yet, in most cases, their employers have trapped them in the house, refusing to let them leave even to buy groceries or send remittances to families outside Canada.
Similarly, despite the public recognition of how essential migrant agricultural workers are to the integrity of the food system, no meaningful support has been provided to them. Housing conditions make it impossible for farm workers to socially distance even during quarantine. Illegal deductions are being made from their paycheques. They are being forced to work harder and faster to make up lost revenue for their employers. Federal government inaction has resulted in so many COVID-19 outbreaks on farms that Windsor’s public health agency, home to the highest concentration of migrant farm workers in the country, has declared agricultural farms high-risk settings for the spread of COVID-19.
Despite how essential migrant workers are to the health and safety of our communities, no wage top-ups have been provided to them. Where migrants have lost jobs or income, many are excluded from the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, CERB. Lilliana Trejo, an undocumented mother who works as an aide in a long-term home, articulated what many are facing. “If we don’t die of COVID-19, we will die of anxiety, depression, isolation and hunger.” We even have members who have tested positive for COVID-19 but can’t access CERB.
According to the last census, 42.9% of non-permanent residents are low income, as compared to 12.5% of non-immigrants and 17.9% of immigrants. Lack of income supports is therefore causing irreversible consequences. Parents are giving birth unassisted at home. Critical surgeries are being cancelled. Families are selling off cars, their primary mode of transportation for work. Students are being pulled from colleges. There is no return to normal from this.
Third, immigration. When Canada closed its borders in the middle of March, families were separated, workers lost income and students were unable to return to their studies. While borders have partially reopened in policy, the reality is that many low-income and racialized migrants and refugees are unable to return, even as many continue to pay rent in Canada. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Migrant students must get work experience in Canada but are unable to find work during the pandemic. Migrant detainees had to go on hunger strike to be released from crowded detention centres but are forced to wear ankle bracelets. Laid-off care workers will be unable to fulfill their work requirements for permanent residency. Immigration permit processing has slowed down, causing immense havoc.
Migrants are doing essential work now and always have been, but they are unable to access decent work, equal rights or family reunification because they do not have full immigration status. This is why we are calling for a regularization program to immediately extend full immigration status to all non-permanent residents in the country without exclusions.
The only effective crisis response and just recovery from COVID-19 is one where migrants get the rights they deserve. Thank you.
The Chair: Thank you very much. Thank you all for your opening remarks. We are now ready to proceed with questions from the senators.
As is our usual practice, I would like to remind each senator that you have five minutes for your questions, and that includes the answers. If you wish to ask a question, please use the raised hand function in Zoom. Once I add you to the list, your hand will be lowered. When asking a question, it helps if you can identify the person that you wish the answer from or if the question is for the entire panel.
The first question will go to our deputy chair, Senator Poirier.
Senator Poirier: Good morning, witnesses. Thank you for being here and for your presentations.
My first question is for Mr. Jeff Wilkins. The Joliette Institution for Women is probably the federal correctional facility most heavily hit by COVID-19. I have a three-part question. Can you tell us how many agents or other staff members of the Joliette Institution have been infected? Do you know why so many agents have been infected? Is it because of the layout of the facility? What lessons should we learn from what happened in Joliette, going forward?
Mr. Wilkins: Yes, I can give you an update.
At Joliette Institution, currently we don’t have any correctional officers that have tested positive, but at its height I believe it was around 70.
I can tell you that Joliette Institution, like most female-sector institutions, is a wide-open facility. One thing we’ve learned since COVID struck is that we need to have the ability to distance ourselves from one another. It’s very difficult inside of an institution that is based on a housing type of framework, where there are general communal areas in which inmates will congregate with one another. That is one of the main reasons that I believe institutions such as Joliette and some of our minimum-security institutions across the country have been hit hard when this virus enters the facility.
In terms of lessons learned, of course, there are different infrastructure layouts that are more practical in terms of preventing spread of COVID-19. However, I don’t see the service moving in the direction to change the complete infrastructure. This is an unprecedented time and, for the most part, these institutions are built around rehabilitation and a communal setting, so they lend themselves more to rehabilitation.
Senator Poirier: Thank you.
My second question is also for you, Mr. Wilkins. You sent a letter to Minister Blair, requesting adequate supply of test kits for the purpose of testing critical staff. As of today, close to two months later, has the minister responded to your letter, and have you received an adequate supply of test kits?
Mr. Wilkins: We’ve not had a response in writing by the minister, but we have spoken. It’s only now that we’re seeing, starting in the Quebec region and also in the Pacific region, that random tests will be offered for staff at the institutional level. Of course, that is something we had been asking for, and it’s almost two months later. This is beginning to rear its head, because I think society in general has learned that asymptomatic testing will be important, and it’s beginning there now.
Senator Poirier: Thank you.
Are we ready for the second wave that we’re hearing about? In your opinion, has the government made the necessary adjustments to ensure Canada’s correctional facilities are ready for that second wave?
Mr. Wilkins: As I mentioned in my opening comments, we can’t go home; we have to make sure our borders are protected. It all depends on the actions we take now as to whether we’ll be prepared for a second wave.
Of course, effectively, if you can keep everybody from entering the facility, you’re going to keep COVID from coming out. However, we have members that have to go back and forth to work. If we’re looking to reopen and brace ourselves for a second wave, we have to be willing to shut down, just as the rest of Canada is right now.
I do believe that, when it comes to personal protective equipment, all of those things exist. We are prepared in that way. Of course, we need to prepare ourselves to make sure social distancing continues to happen in the institution in order to prevent any spread if the virus does enter.
Senator Poirier: Thank you very much.
The Chair: Mr. Wilkins, very quickly, you mentioned random testing. Is that adequate, in your view, or should it be handled differently?
Mr. Wilkins: One reason we were calling for testing in the institutions and why I wrote my letter to the Minister of Public Safety was with regard to Port-Cartier. When the outbreak first happened there, we saw that a significant majority of our membership had to go home to self-isolate for 14 days. In fact, they were down from 200 members to around 70 or 75. Of course, that puts a lot of strain on the people who continue to work. Our response was that we needed to have these people tested so that, if they are negative, they could come back to work, because sitting at home wasn’t an option.
What’s happening now is a voluntary test. You can get it while asymptomatic. It’s clearly going to help chart the way forward and hopefully help combat the virus.
Senator Griffin: My first question is for Jerry Dias, and it’s about a very local situation. There’s a ferry service between Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. It’s seasonal, and the refitting is done each winter, usually in Nova Scotia, in the Pictou area. The Prince Edward Island workers have to drive all the way around the Confederation Bridge and through New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to get there. The problem this year is having to isolate for two weeks after they get back home to the province of P.E.I. It’s not a good situation. I’m wondering, in light of the quarantine requirements put forth by the provincial government in this case, will your union be advocating for one of those ferry boats next year to be stationed in Prince Edward Island so that the refit can occur here, making it much easier for the Island workers?
Mr. Dias: Thank you for your question. You’re talking about the Northumberland Ferries. Absolutely, we will be advocating that we leave one of the ferries at Wood Islands and that we would do the retrofit. We last did a retrofit in 2016, I think it was, and it was an incredible success. It’s a timely question because we’re having the internal discussion. We are raising it with the employer. There will have to be discussion, because we’ll have to make modifications to the agreement to determine the crews and scope of work. Yes, it is something we will definitely be supporting and something that we are advocating.
Senator Griffin: Terrific. I know we’ll appreciate it here.
My next question is for Mr. Hussan, and it’s regarding temporary foreign workers in the agricultural sector. Are you seeing workers raise occupational health and safety concerns? Are you also seeing differences in the provincial regulations, especially related to the context of communal living, such as bunkhouses?
Mr. Hussan: Absolutely. Just to give you a small sense, between March 15 and May 15, on one of our migrant farm worker hotlines, we received 1,078 complaints, over 60 days, from migrant farm workers about health and safety concerns, mistreatment while at work, not being able to get food while in quarantine, paycheque deductions, and being forced to work faster and harder because there are fewer workers on farms.
There are differences. For example, in P.E.I., the provincial government has stepped in to provide housing during the quarantines, as well as in B.C. However, in many other provinces, that hasn’t happened. So we’re seeing a patchwork of responses where certain public health agencies or provinces have stepped up.
By and large, bad employers, because of the tied work permits that migrant farm workers have, are using COVID-19 to exploit workers further. So what is happening is that the lack of temporary immigration status is making it impossible for most to assert their rights, not just for the workers in the country, but many workers were either delayed in coming or have not come here yet, and those people have not been extended income supports, so they are starving. Their families are starving. We have members saying, “We can’t put a roof on our homes because we don’t have the money to pay for it and the rainy season is coming and we will lose all our belongings from multiple generations.”
It is a massive crisis, and I think it has been completely ignored because the workers are feeding Canada but they are not being supported.
Senator Griffin: Thank you. That’s it for me.
Senator Forest-Niesing: My question is for Jeff Wilkins of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers. In your opening remarks, you mentioned the issue of your members’ mental health in these times that have been made harder and more uncertain due to the pandemic. I fully agree that this is a very important aspect and that needs are critical right now.
This brings me to the subject of inmates’ mental health. Because of the pandemic, inmates are confined to their cells, an arrangement that looks far too much like disciplinary segregation. As we know, this can have a significant harmful impact on their mental health and increase the likelihood of an emergency happening in the prison.
I’d like you to describe the conditions and the actual consequences for the inmates. What kind of routine are the inmates being required to follow during this lockdown period, and what additional measures have been taken to support their mental health?
Mr. Wilkins: Thank you for the question.
Really, I think there are two different responses. We obviously have institutions where we have had significant outbreaks, but 95% of our institutions have not had any outbreaks. The need for medical isolation and what some may refer to — you just referred to it as a segregation type of atmosphere, which certainly happens when there is an outbreak in the site and conditions become more confined, just as we see in our society. This virus spreads through people having contact with one another, and of course, that’s what we have to look at.
Now, of course, there are many things that we have been discussing with the Correctional Service all along, trying to maintain, to the best we can, contacts for inmates, whether it is through video visitation, chaplain services, if that is a possibility, and obviously our mental health teams in each of our institutions are continuing their work, more specifically the ones that are a little bit more open.
Absolutely it is a concern. It is a concern for everybody, every Canadian across this country, mental health coming out of COVID-19. Of course, with the restrictions in some of our institutions because of the disease, it does lend itself to bigger problems. It is certainly something that the service is going to need to look at.
The Chair: I do want to remind everyone that if we have translation issues, do not hesitate to signal it. Of course, you can express yourself in your language of choice. If you need to signal a challenge of any sort, we are dealing with this new technology and we will adapt, as we do.
Senator Forest-Niesing: I wonder whether we can just go back and obtain a more specific response to one of the portions of my earlier question, which is: What is a typical day in the life of an inmate at the moment, given the measures that are necessary to impose social distancing? How many hours are they in their cells? How many hours are they allowed out of their cells? How is it translating in practical terms?
Mr. Wilkins: Thank you. It is a little bit different if it is an inmate incarcerated at, say, Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia or at Joliette or CFF in Quebec. There is some freedom of movement when it comes to recreation in an institution that isn’t experiencing an outbreak. In institutions experiencing an outbreak, the challenge is to make sure they are getting their food, medication and some relief to get some fresh air with a small group of individuals in the institution. The majority of their day, yes, would be spent inside of their house or their cell. I can’t really give you a number because it fluctuates. Our officers are trying to do the best that they possibly can to make sure that the inmates are out for the maximum amount of time.
Senator Forest-Niesing: Thank you very much.
I do have another question for you. This question concerns the recommendation of public health experts to liberate a proportion of the inmates from the prison environment so that the goal of physical distancing is more easily achieved. To what extent and by what criteria are inmates being released? What measures are being taken to protect the public, to protect them, and how do you ensure a positive reintegration for those individuals back into the community?
Mr. Wilkins: As the president of the correctional officers, correctional officers don’t have much to do with the release of inmates. Of course, we are there to protect them and protect the public. As far as I am aware, there has been much work done by institutional parole officers, community parole officers and the National Parole Board to look at inmates who are coming near to the end of their sentence or are eligible for day parole and do not pose a risk. They have been releasing some inmates, but I have to go back to the broader part of that question.
The release of a few inmates in the institution isn’t going to solve the problem when it comes to social distancing. As I mentioned earlier, part of our problem is infrastructure in the institutions. In an institution, where a toilet and a sink are available in an inmate’s cell and you have the ability to control movement, isolation becomes easy. In an institution that’s widely open and has more communal living spaces, it becomes very difficult. The solution really is not the release of the inmates, in my view. Of course, when they are eligible and it is safe to do so, by all means. They go back to the community. The issue for us is we need to have the ability to protect them in place.
The Chair: Thank you, Mr. Wilkins.
Senator Plett: Mr. Wilkins, let me preface my questions by telling you just how appreciative all Canadians are for all the work that the correctional service officers are doing, especially during this very difficult time. Your work is not unnoticed by all Canadians.
Mr. Wilkins, Minister Blair has stated that he is working with the Commissioner of the Correctional Service and the chair of the Parole Board — both of which are independent bodies — to release non-dangerous offenders. The term “non-dangerous” has never been defined by the minister. This may not be in your purview, Mr. Wilkins, but have you or your members faced any pressures to release inmates who may not be ready for release? What is your experience of the policy of the CSC on this issue, and are you aware of any definition of the term “non-dangerous” that the minister may be referring to?
Mr. Wilkins: Thank you for the question.
No, I don’t know the term “non-dangerous” when it comes to someone who is incarcerated. I think they are for a reason; they pose a threat to public safety. That threat needs to be assessed, and assessed constantly, through a correctional plan.
Have our members been pressured to release? Of course not. We’re really not in the decision-making process. There are Correctional Officer IIs who do have some casework, and primary workers have some casework responsibilities, but I have not been given any indication that there has been pressure placed upon any of our members for the release of inmates.
As for the natural law, when someone is coming to the end of their sentence, they are eligible for some form of statutory release or day parole and parole eligibility. For the most part, I think that’s the work that has been going on.
Senator Plett: Thank you very much.
I have a second question, Mr. Wilkins. In your news release on March 30, you said:
. . . the immediate release of inmates under the care, custody, and control of the Correctional Service of Canada signals a complete disregard for public safety.
The release of a few inmates would not solve the potential spread of COVID-19 in our facilities; it would only increase the risk for Canadians. . . .
Were you or your union ever consulted by groups or individuals who have loudly called for the release of more offenders during the COVID-19, and what do you think has motivated such calls? Is the motivation really offender safety, or do you see it more as an ideological goal, simply to release more inmates?
Mr. Wilkins: Well, first off, no, there had been no consultation. We, of course, learned through different media outlets that there were calls from interest groups to release, and, of course, we still see calls from various family members of inmates who are petitioning different media outlets to release their sons or daughters.
I stand by my statement that that’s not the solution here, that it is to protect in place. I do believe that the immediate release, one that does not take into consideration the laws and the governing body of the parole board, certainly would put the Canadian public in jeopardy. Of course, there are certain policies, procedures and laws that are there for a reason, and that is to protect the Canadian public. If those things are not going to be followed or met, then I do believe that there is an increased risk.
Senator Plett: Are you aware of any challenges in the past two months related to offenders who have been released following social distancing rules?
Mr. Wilkins: No, I’m not aware.
Senator Plett: What restrictions exist for the CSC and for parole officers when it comes to monitoring offenders who have been released into the community in the current pandemic, and are you concerned that effective monitoring may be increasingly difficult?
Mr. Wilkins: I think effective monitoring is certainly increasingly difficult, not that I have a firm knowledge as to what is happening with community parole officers, but I do know that they are no longer entering homes. They kind of do their interviews at the doorstep with inmates, and I don’t think that they are going to have a very good indication of what is happening behind the walls or in the homes to begin with. But, no, I haven’t heard anything else on that, to be honest.
Senator Plett: Thank you, Mr. Wilkins.
Senator Munson: Mr. Dias, you and I met many times before, and I know that you are such a soft-spoken guy, so I don’t want to get you going this morning, but there is something on my mind called “deregulation.” There are other things on my mind like “Thatcherism,” “Reaganism,” and things like for-profit nursing homes. I’m sure you have a point of view about this, and I know it is not time to point fingers. There have been a lot of stories out there — the military had their story today about what has taken place, which is a tragedy — and whether we as a society have looked the other way and allowed all of this to happen inside these nursing homes. Do you think that deregulation has played a role in the set-ups that we have in long-term homes and in nursing homes?
Mr. Dias: There is no question. The deregulating has led in part to so many of the problems we are dealing with today.
The major deregulation in Ontario happened in 1995 when the government at the time really reduced the amount of hours of care of residents, and that led to not replacing PSWs. On average, right now, at a long-term care facility, if everybody is at work, it works out to be about one PSW for about 10 or 12 residents, but the reality is they are always working short, every day. If you have a full complement of workers in a long-term care facility, that’s the exception, not the norm, so by and large it is usually one personal support worker for 16 to 18 residents. On the afternoon shift and midnight shift, it is one PSW for 30 or 40 residents. So this whole deregulation certainly has played a major role.
In 1995, when it started, as I said, there was a real push to move to the for-profit model. Taking a look at the straight facts and figures today, the number of deaths in for-profit, long-term care facilities exceeds those that are publicly run. If you look at the five homes that were identified for bringing in the army, four of the five of them were for-profit, privately run long-term care facilities.
There is a lot that needs to be done. First of all, we have to deal with the workers in long-term care facilities with respect, and that’s the only way that our seniors — my mother spent her last couple of years in Hillsdale manor with dementia — the way that we get respect for the residents is by making sure that they have adequate care. So first, we have to get away from the part-time, casual, non-standard model where workers have to work in two or three long-term care facilities in order to make ends meet. One of the things that happened was we saw so many PSWs leaving the field. Why? Because it turned out to be not much of a career based on such terrible pay and, as I said, having to bounce between two or three different homes in order to make ends meet.
This is a tragedy of proportions that no government really saw coming but, frankly, should have. We’ve been raising the issues of working short for years. We’ve been talking about the low pay that has led to the departure from the industry for years. In 2017, we did what we called “the six-minute challenge.” We challenged people to this: You have six minutes in the morning, which is how much time a long-term care worker has, to get the resident out of bed, bathroom, cleaned up, teeth cleaned, toilet, breakfast table — six minutes. And when they’re working short, which is every day, they don’t have six minutes. We’ve been dealing with this and talking about this for years, and it has fallen on deaf ears. The simple reality is people can’t avoid it any more.
I think it is clear today to Canadians. In a poll, two-thirds said it should no longer be for profit. I totally agree. When it comes to our seniors and our loved ones, they deserve better than what they’ve gotten over the years and certainly during this pandemic.
Senator Munson: I think my five minutes is almost gone, but I want to say one thing. As a society, we’ve also looked the other way in the private residences. As a society, we’ve seen all of this — the part-time workers, the workers moving elsewhere, doing their own thing somewhere else. And yet, as a society, I think we are culpable, because we have looked the other way, because we seem to be satisfied to have new Canadians, so to speak, to do those jobs that were not being taken. It is a wake-up call, you are absolutely right, so I appreciate your comments. Thank you.
Mr. Dias: Thank you.
Senator Seidman: Thank you, this morning, to everyone, to our witnesses for being with us.
Epidemiologic experts agree that methodical and targeted rapid testing and contact tracing are ever more important now at this particular juncture of the pandemic as nations worldwide prepare for the next phase of controlling this virus. These tools are crucial for identifying clusters, managing outbreaks and slowing down the spread of COVID-19. For weeks, technology companies around the globe have been developing contact tracing apps, which employ either GPS or Bluetooth technology, in order to identify, inform and monitor those who may have come into contact with a person who has been diagnosed with COVID-19. For example, in Canada, Alberta is already using its own mobile contact tracing app, and I know in Quebec they are currently examining one as well. It is unclear if there will be a nationally recommended mobile contact tracing app; that remains to be seen.
Because all of your members — and now I speak to all three of our witnesses today — are likely in high-risk categories, I would like to ask the following question: How would your members feel about standardized policies in their workplace that would require them to be tested on a regular basis, maybe once a week, before they walk through the door into work and to download a contact tracing app that would monitor their environment and exposure to confirm cases of COVID-19? I might start with Mr. Dias.
Mr. Dias: First of all, let me talk about the auto industry to start. Before our members even enter the workplace, they go through thermal imaging in order to check their temperature. If there’s an elevated temperature, they go immediately down to the medical centre. If you take a look at our facilities in Windsor, the assembly plant, which is Fiat Chrysler, it looks like a MASH unit outside — tents, trailers and medical staff. When it comes to testing, our members are already going through it. There’s a lot of work on the plant as well as it relates to the downloading of apps and the answering of questions. So a lot of that is already being utilized.
There will always be people who will disagree, but the bottom line is I believe that the overwhelming majority of my members will do whatever it takes in order to make sure that they are safe at work and, more importantly, as they leave work, they go home to their families safe. There’s a lot of apprehension right now in a variety of workplaces. As our members go to work, are they nervous? The answer is yes. They are nervous for themselves but they’re nervous as a result of other family members now returning to work. Everybody is nervous that either a partner or themselves will contract COVID at work. I don’t think there will be a major blow back, frankly, especially in today’s times when people are erring on the side of caution.
Senator Seidman: Let me just understand; did you say that your members are already being tested other than being monitored for temperature change?
Mr. Dias: We are talking right now to the employers, frankly, about setting up testing right on site. We’re working with the Ontario government with that type of initiative. I’ve already spoken to Ford and Fiat Chrysler. I will speak to Bombardier today. I have a call right after this with General Motors. We are talking about doing exactly that.
Senator Seidman: Of course, the thing that we really need that we don’t have yet is a rapid test where you could deliver the results in half an hour.
Mr. Dias: Correct. What the government is saying to us is that they should be able to get the results back in a rapid response within 24 hours.
Senator Seidman: Great. I appreciate that.
I might ask you, Mr. Wilkins, the same question.
Mr. Wilkins: Like I suggested with a previous answer to a question, I do believe that the testing is coming to the institutions. They’re starting right now in the Quebec region, and it will be moving into B.C. We’ve seen a couple of big problems in both of those regions. I’ve been given the indication that testing is going to be available in all institutions.
As it stands right now, of course, we have nursing staff that are in our institutions. This testing would be on a voluntary basis. I think your question was, would it be a mandatory test. Right now, it is voluntary. Of course, if there’s a very easy test, one that you can get back in 15 minutes — again, our members have grown anxious about COVID-19, and I’m pretty sure that there wouldn’t be significant blowback there.
The second part of your question, however, with the contact tracing, it’s a little bit challenging in a correctional environment. We’re not allowed to bring in cellphones, so it poses different dangers there. But certainly when it comes to testing, I’ve said all along that I do believe that testing is the key to solving this problem.
Senator Seidman: We’re now talking about regular testing. We all know that one test doesn’t really say a whole lot. If we did weekly testing for high-risk workers, especially if we can get on-the-spot results, you don’t think your members would have trouble with that?
Mr. Wilkins: I think my members would have trouble if it was mandatory or if it was voluntary. I suggest to you that a lot of our members would do that voluntarily because it’s something that would be important to their own health and safety. Mandatory is a different situation. We have not yet sat down to think about that.
Senator Seidman: I want to hear from the Migrant Workers Alliance. Mr. Hussan, what is your response to that same question?
Mr. Hussan: First of all, right now COVID-related testing and treatment is not available to people without full health cards, so undocumented migrants with a three-month wait period. So where we are and what you’re talking about is such a massive leap.
Second, many of our workers are precarious, part-time gig workers. There isn’t a factory where there can be testing. In other cases, on a farm, migrant care workers are living in the employers’ homes, so are we testing outside of every home? We have to understand what the actual structure of the economy is and that there aren’t these traditional workplaces by and large.
On the question of the apps, there is a huge risk around surveillance, immigration enforcement, information sharing between different departments, which is why many of our members are too scared to go to the hospital and too scared to get income supports when they’re dying of hunger, frankly. So I don’t see how, without substantive guarantees, multilingual education, really clear foresight on the information-sharing, we can move to any app-based program. We’re already seeing in Alberta where many people are refusing to use it. Thank you.
Senator Moodie: Thank you to all the witnesses today.
My question is to Mr. Dias. I want to take us to a higher level to understand a little bit more about the members of your union. We understand from your demographic data that the largest single category of your membership is health care. I want you to reflect for us on which jobs these members are occupying. Give us a sense of which job categories of your members are most concerned for their safety with regard to exposure to COVID. I’d also like to get a sense from you of the regions that are most affected, that you’re hearing back from your members that they’re concerned about their safety. The final part of this question is to find out from you what, if any, actions have you taken and what’s been the response of the provincial and the federal governments in response to your requests for assistance?
Mr. Dias: First of all, I represent about 30,000 workers in the health care sector, of which 15,000 or so are PSWs. Our number one grouping of health care workers are in Ontario. Let me give you an example: Everything from registered practical nurses, PSWs, people who sweep the floors and dietary staff, so every facet, whether it’s hospitals, long-term care facilities, nursing homes, retirement homes, we represent the workers in all of them.
Of course, the number one concern is the lack of personal protective equipment, and, frankly, the structuring of the hierarchy as to who even receives personal protective equipment. For example, doctors and nurses would be at the top end of the totem pole, where personal support workers, dietary, those that clean the rooms are at the bottom end of the totem pole. The ones most vulnerable are those working in accessible living, those that go door to door that provides services for our seniors. I represent all of the different segments of the health care sector.
Let me give you an example. Our members who work in dietary at Carlingview Manor in Ottawa, when they were feeding residents who had tested positive with COVID-19, they were wearing garbage bags, if you can imagine.
Senator Moodie: Mr. Dias, I’m going to ask you, because of limitations of time, could you give us a sense, please, of which workers are the ones you’re hearing from the most. Again, is it Ontario you’re hearing from, because these are where your residents are, and what actions have you taken and what response have you received from the provincial government?
Mr. Dias: My apologies. PSWs mainly in Ontario.
We have had numerous discussions with the Ontario government about personal protective equipment and about the regulating of the long-term care facilities. They are working hand in hand with us, like we’re working with the employers about getting our hands on as much personal protective equipment as we can. But we’ll see about the long term, because up until the pandemic, we had little or no response from the provincial government in Ontario about doing anything.
I challenged the premier back in December to spend one shift with me in a long-term care facility, and I once again asked in February. I got nowhere. I believe the response is different today. I’ve spoken to Doug personally about this.
Senator Moodie: Thank you very much.
Mr. Hussan, my concern is undocumented migrant workers, and frankly temporary workers whose work permits have expired. Because of that, their health insurance and social insurance numbers have also expired. As you pointed out, these are a significant part of the Canadian work force, and currently they are being neglected in terms of subsidies and emergency support, emergency benefits and Employment Insurance. Can you let us know what is happening with undocumented migrant workers who cannot benefit from the subsidies currently available to the temporary foreign workers?
Mr. Hussan: By and large, undocumented residents and also a lot of temporary migrants aren’t able to access anything. As I said, outside of Ontario, there is no health care. In B.C., for example, where there’s a rental subsidy, it’s not available to undocumented migrants. CERB is not accessible. CESB is not accessible. In some provinces, some social assistance is not accessible.
Basically, we are facing a human rights catastrophe. Every day we wake up and we essentially deal with immense suffering. We are driving food to people. We’re trying to raise funds where we can. However, our members are drinking lemon water to get through the day. People have sold everything they can. They are working in extremely dangerous and unsafe situations just to be able to feed their families, and it’s not enough.
We have migrant farm workers on a farm where just last week 13 workers were given one bag of potatoes to eat for seven days by the employer, but they weren’t allowed to leave their site. As I mentioned, we have families who chose to give birth at home without assistance, without planning, just couldn’t go to the hospital because they didn’t have health care and didn’t have any money.
I’ve been doing this for a decade, and our members have been doing it for half a century, in fact, and we have never seen this extent of suffering that is taking place. People are choosing to move in with abusive men, abusive employers, now migrant sex workers, simply to be able to feed themselves or to ward off homelessness.
Even if you have children who are Canadian citizens and you are undocumented, you’re facing the same thing. We have a woman with a 13-year-old son who has severe mental health issues. She hasn’t left the house because he’s immunocompromised, and she hasn’t been able to get any food for two and a half months until we found them and got them food.
We are talking about a mass and total devastation of the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, and it’s irreversible. We can’t open up because people have already sold their belongings and their health has already suffered. We are in an abject crisis, and it’s being ignored by every level of government entirely. That’s why we’re saying we need immigration status for all. We are essential workers who are in the midst of a global pandemic. We are essential, excluded and exploited all at the same time.
The Chair: Thank you, Mr. Hussan, for making us aware.
Senator Omidvar: I’m going to pick up on that very powerful phrase that Mr. Hussan just put on the table, “We are essential, excluded and exploited.”
I want to focus my question on seasonal agriculture workers. Even though they are discriminated against and excluded to the extent that you have described, I think I’m right in saying that there is a deeper appreciation of their work and their contribution to the Canadian food supply chain and to our life here, as one example. Yet I also understand completely what you’re saying about the individual discriminations that they may face, as well as the big systemic discriminations.
One of the issues I’d like to ask you about is their protection and the enforcement of labour standards, which are, of course, provincial. What do you think is an appropriate role for the federal government, in light of this crisis, to create some solutions in the short term and the long term to the lack of labour protections that are found in a variety of workplaces? As a Canadian, I would hope that there are some agricultural employers who treat their employees as decent human beings. I’m pretty convinced there must be. But our concern is for the ones that you have described. What role do you think the federal government should take in protecting their labour rights?
Mr. Hussan: The central reason that people cannot assert their right to safe work or assert their basic labour rights is that they are on an employer-dependent work permit, that is, they are indentured and tied to their employer. If you cannot leave a bad job and if you will be deported for speaking out, how can you assert your basic labour rights? That’s not a provincial issue; that’s a federal issue. So the federal government must remove any tied work permits, and not just some sectoral but actually remove all tied work permits. That’s an immediate solution.
As a long-term solution, they should be given permanent resident status on arrival. Migrant farm workers have been coming to this country for 53 years. We have members who have been coming here for 8 months of the year for 27 years. So that’s the primary issue, and I think that’s the federal resolution.
Yes, there are some good employers who do bad things. There are some bad employers who do good things. This isn’t about individual employers. It’s about a structure that denies people the ability to assert their labour rights because of laws made by the federal government.
Senator Omidvar: What is your response, Mr. Hussan, to the Minister of Immigration’s proposal to launch a pilot for 5,000 seasonal agriculture workers to gain exactly what you’re proposing: permanent resident status?
Mr. Hussan: The Agri-Food Immigration Pilot program is limited to 2,750 workers a year. It excludes all seasonal workers, who make up over 65% of the program. It excludes everyone in Quebec. It excludes everyone in fisheries. So essentially, it includes almost no one. And not just that, it requires an English language test and an education test that most people can’t pass. And right now, to apply, for example, you need fingerprints, but no fingerprint offices are open.
This is a distraction. This is not an immigration problem. It’s a way to just earn some PR points. This is not what we need. This is a slap in the faces of the essential workers, who are not just feeding Canada. Canada is the world’s sixth-largest exporter of food. We sustain the world. This is what our members say, “We are feeding the planet.”
Senator Omidvar: Mr. Wilkins, I want to understand your approach to the depopulation of prisoners in our correctional systems. Your union, as you have explained, is against this proposal, even though medical professionals who work in correctional facilities, not just in Canada but all around the world, have called for some release programs.
There are low-risk offenders. There are non-violent offenders. I understand from the Parole Board that there are, in fact, prisoners who have been granted release but have not been released. I’m interested in knowing why your union is not taking a more nuanced approach to this proposal, as opposed to what I see, a certain kind of rigidity that does not take the context of the data into account.
Mr. Wilkins: Again, when it comes to the release of offenders, UCCO-SACC-CSN doesn’t have a whole lot of input in the matter. All I can tell you is that our members are the boots on the ground. Our members are the ones that are dealing with inmates on a daily basis. The feedback that is given to me by my membership is that we have to follow the rule of law. The rule of law, when it comes to the release, is that there are certain statutory ways that you can go about that, and, of course, there are parole eligibility ways that they can go about that, and for the most part that work is being done.
On the mass release of inmates that are deemed low risk, of course, everything has to go through an assessment process and weighed against a correctional plan, and if that correctional plan is not completed, then, of course, there is concern from correctional officers. Everybody that’s incarcerated, for the most part, is going to come back into the community, and there are certain things that need to be done for them to do that safely. When we don’t follow that practice and use COVID-19 as a scapegoat for release, then we have a genuine issue with that. I don’t know how more nuanced we can be.
Senator Omidvar: I find it interesting you are using that language, “COVID-19 as a scapegoat for release,” when COVID-19 is a death sentence for many. But thank you for your answer.
Senator Mégie: Thank you to the witnesses. My first question is for Mr. Wilkins. I believe you said in your speech that the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers received the guidelines a little too late to prevent the outbreaks in the prisons. Correct me if I’m wrong. The WHO released a document on March 15, 2020, specifically outlining how to prevent outbreaks in prisons. Had you been hoping to get the information before March 15, or did you feel that March 15 was early enough for the institutions to get what they needed?
Mr. Wilkins: Thank you for the question.
In my opening statement, I talked about PPE guidelines. Of course, whenever there’s a policy like that, it needs to go through various levels of the occupational health and safety committees that we have. The national occupational health and safety committee did not receive the guidelines until the end of March. Of course, we had seen some outbreak sites, and Port-Cartier had its first confirmed case on March 26, the first confirmed case we had in any institution.
It became dire but, of course, we should have had PPE guidelines well before that. That should have been something that is already contained into a contingency plan. Of course, that’s something that we had been calling on the employer to share long before the end of March. I can only say that it didn’t exist.
Senator Mégie: Are you talking about it now, and is your team taking the WHO guidelines into account?
Mr. Wilkins: Absolutely. The consultation has happened at the national level and all the way down to the local level on guidelines of PPE. Of course, we still do have concerns with regard to a new definition now when it comes to the procedural masks or surgical masks being a form of personal protective equipment when we don’t believe that they are, but we’re dealing with those with the employer now.
Senator Mégie: Madam Chair, do I have time to ask Mr. Dias a question?
The Chair: Yes, you have a minute left.
Senator Mégie: Mr. Dias, I know that most people under your jurisdiction, in your union, are health care professionals, but your union also includes other people, like essential retail workers. Which retail sectors are at higher risk for COVID-19?
The Chair: I will attempt some flexible translation. Senator Mégie was wondering, when it comes to details, so commercial details — I’m sorry, commercial might not be the right translation — which sectors are the most affected, to your knowledge, by COVID?
Mr. Dias: There is no question our members in health care are the ones that are the most impacted, by and large. I mean, I represent workers in grocery stores, where there has been transit, airlines, but there is no question, by and large, it’s our members in the health care sector.
The Chair: Thank you, Mr. Dias.
The Chair: Senator Mégie, we’re going to follow up in writing to make sure we get the right answer to your question, notwithstanding my spontaneous interpretation. Thank you for your understanding.
Senator Manning: I want to thank our witnesses for their appearances and testimony here this afternoon.
I’d like to send along my condolences to the members of the Unifor and the family of the lost front-line worker, Leonard. I’m sure we’re all thinking of them at this difficult time.
My question is for Mr. Dias. On April 17, 2020, Unifor issued a memo to workers at women’s shelters and working in crisis line services regarding the temporary order issued by the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services. Mr. Dias, could you describe this temporary order issued by the Government of Ontario at the time and explain the concerns raised by Unifor and if this is a concern in other provinces, such as my own in Newfoundland and Labrador? That’s my first question, thank you.
Mr. Dias: The memo actually has skipped my mind, what the request was.
Senator Manning: I’m wondering about members of your union that work in women’s shelters. I know they’re doing a study here in Newfoundland and Labrador at the present time in relation to the increase in domestic violence. I’m concerned about the employees that are providing service at the women’s shelters.
Mr. Dias: My apologies. Yes, we represent women in shelters in Ontario, Nova Scotia and a few other locations on the East Coast as well. I sit on the board of Halton Women’s Place and two other shelters in the Halton region. To say that the issues around domestic violence have increased during this pandemic would be a dramatic understatement.
The women’s shelters whose boards I sit on are always running at over 100% capacity. As of now, we are forced to move mothers and their children into hotels because of overflow. We are seeing assaults in record numbers. We’ve said to the government that it is out of control. There is not enough space. We’re going to have to find mechanisms by which to keep women and kids safe. We’ll have to find alternative locations. A host of issues were raised with the government, and we are dealing with a host of issues. I have a call today with the board from 5:00 to 6:00 during which we will be dealing with these issues. I know there have been discussions about alternative sites, but to the best of my knowledge, we are moving women and children into hotels to keep them safe during this period.
Senator Manning: What is the reaction from the government in relation to the concerns that have been raised, Mr. Dias?
Mr. Dias: We didn’t get any response at all from the government. Nothing. Like I said, I know that different women’s shelters are dealing with the issues. They may well be dealing directly with the government, but I do not know that firsthand. I will likely know more after 5 o’clock today.
Senator Manning: Thank you.
In your opening remarks, you mentioned the concerns your members have about the possibility of a second wave in July and concerns with regard to income for members following that. I may not have heard you correctly, but I thought you said you had put forward or are in the process of putting forward suggestions, criteria, ideas, whatever the case may be, to deal with this. Have you put them forward?
Mr. Dias: Yes.
Senator Manning: Would it be possible for our committee to get a copy of those suggestions?
Mr. Dias: Absolutely. I will provide a copy to the committee immediately.
We talked about a couple of things. Number one was the dramatic overhaul that is necessary for the unemployment insurance system. It was clear, when the outbreak hit, how unprepared we were and how many flaws are in the system. If we are going to overhaul the system, which we need to, first we have to make sure people can actually qualify.
One of the faults with the unemployment insurance system as it exists is that governments have historically used the overage to help balance the budget. I would argue that’s workers’ money that the government ought not to be putting its hands on. Today, only 42% of people who apply for unemployment insurance actually get benefits. For low-wage workers, it is about 28%.
Other things are when people lose their jobs, when they’re severed or terminated, it ought not to be clawed back from unemployment insurance. Frankly, it’s about time we increased unemployment insurance to 75% wage replacement. There are a lot of other issues I could talk about, but I know we are running out of time.
Senator Dasko: Thanks to the witnesses for appearing before this committee today.
My questions are for Mr. Dias. We know that you are the largest private sector union. You represent workers across many sectors, so you are able to see consequences in every direction. You have health care workers, and they’ve been impacted by the health crisis. On the other hand, in other sectors, some workers in retail settings are working around the clock, it seems, in the supermarkets, and yet others are unemployed, have lost their jobs, been fired, furloughed, et cetera.
Since the mandate of this committee is to look at the government response to the crisis, I want you to reflect on where you think the response has been the least adequate in any of these ways. You are also talking about the future in terms of changing EI and so on, but I want to focus more on the response to the crisis. Across all these areas, where has it been most problematic? In which ways and in which areas? If you could be specific, that would be helpful. Thank you.
Mr. Dias: That’s a good question. If we’re going to look ahead, I think it has to be the jobs that people will be going back to. There needs to be much more conversation. The CERB program and the wage subsidy plan are very important, but they have a shelf life.
The issue becomes: What happens to the major employers with the massive layoffs that will happen as a result of this? Take a look at the airline industry. If we learned from the past, the last thing in the world we can do is allow the airlines to go bankrupt. What inevitably happens is they come out of bankruptcy, and within a period of time the employer, the CEOs, will end up doing quite well, and it’s the workers that take the hit.
We have to look at the major industries we have across the country. Take a look at the auto industry. Even though we are slowly starting to bring people back to work, the auto industry will likely go from about $21.5 million in sales in North America in 2019 to around $16.5 million in 2020. There will need to be subsidies in order to entice people to buy cars. Will there be a transformation in terms of electric vehicles?
We have to look at where the economy is going and whether the government is planning on playing a role. If there is a lack of focus so far, it is about what the economy will look like in the short and long term. In fairness to the government, things are changing every day as we deal with the pandemic. Right now they are balancing trying to put money in people’s pockets while at the same time trying to have a vision for the future. I think if anything is lacking to date, that’s quite likely it.
Senator Dasko: So some vision of what they should be doing going forward.
What about in the health area in terms of the way the government has responded to the health crisis, and thinking about your workers in those sectors? Is there anything you think they’ve done that is less than adequate?
Mr. Dias: This is a follow-up to the first question. One thing this pandemic has shown us is how we have outsourced our safety as a nation. As a country, we were completely unprepared for this. The nations we depended on for our personal protective equipment, at first many of them shut down the outsourcing of the supply because of their domestic demand, which made it even worse. Here we are, a nation rich in natural resources and raw material but no real plan as to how to use it.
If we have let anybody down, it is our essential workers. The debate also becomes how we have historically treated our essential workers, because they are some of the lowest paid in society. Aside from health care workers, look at grocery store workers, many of whom make just over minimum wage. Look at transit drivers. We talked about women’s shelters and airline workers. I think the real issue is about the lack of support they had from the government in terms of ensuring their safety.
Like I said, even today there is a dramatic shortage of N95 masks. That’s why we are having conversations with many of the employers, including General Motors. They are making masks that are deemed to be surgical masks. But what else can other employers do? The key lesson is that we can never get caught like this again. We can never again betray Canadians like we did.
Senator Dasko: Mr. Dias, my next question is about the proposal to advocate for paid sick days that the federal government has promised to make as part of the deal they made with the New Democrats the other day. You have fought for sick days in probably every contract you’ve ever worked on. How do you feel about this? What would it mean? Who would pay for the sick days? Who would get them? Who wouldn’t get them? What is your take on that?
Mr. Dias: First of all, I want to thank Jagmeet Singh, the NDP caucus and the Liberal government for moving it forward.
The simple reality is that it is an essential of life, and the pandemic just showed it. You can’t be sending people to work who are sick. Sick days are necessary, regardless of the industry. Whether it’s a manufacturing service or hospitality, it doesn’t matter. The more people who go to work sick because they can’t afford to take a day off, the worse it is for industry and the worse it is for people.
I think this is just an issue of basic common sense. I think it is an issue of basic respect, and this is long overdue and welcome. Just look at long-term care facilities where people who tested positive for COVID-19 were sent back to work by the employer because of chronic understaffing. Look, we need to fix this, and I’m glad it is being fixed. But it can’t just be for the pandemic; this legislation has to survive this.
Senator Kutcher: Thank you to all the witnesses for your testimony and for what we’ve learned from it.
I have two questions. They are for Mr. Hussan. I found your testimony upsetting and problematic to listen to. Senators are very interested in the most vulnerable of our people. The first question is a bit more specific and the second question a bit broader. I will ask them both together.
Many Canadians employ temporary foreign workers in their own homes, in child care and in elder care. I would like to know what specifically the federal government has done to reach out to those individuals, either through their employers or directly, to ensure that they were safe in their workplace and that their needs were met.
Second — if everyone else knows this, I apologize, but I don’t know it — is there a national database that lets us reach people who are most vulnerable in times of a crisis such as this so that we can be proactive in our activities?
Mr. Hussan: The answer to the first question is nothing has happened. Our members work in every environment, from residential care facilities, private homes and in long-term care facilities, as personal support workers, health workers and also as cleaners. By and large, what happened when COVID-19 struck, employers forced many workers to move into their homes or to stay on site and not leave, and we’re going back to January here, because immigrants were framed as carriers, particularly Filipinos, East Asians and women. We’re going back to January here. We have members who haven’t left their homes since; they have not been allowed out by their employers. They can’t leave to send remittances home. They can’t leave to buy groceries. So many times, they are actually trapped, and no change has been made. We have asked the federal government to give workers the ability to leave an employer if it is unsafe work. They are working when parents and children are home. That means their hours of work are endless, but there is no overtime pay.
Health and safety issues are immense because when these migrant workers are arriving into the country after the borders have been reopened, they are asked to give protocols for quarantines, but employers won’t let them into their homes for the first 14 days, so they are being turned back at the airport because employers are saying they have to quarantine elsewhere, but they are in-home, live-in caregivers. So by and large again, the government has completely left them out.
On your second question, I’m talking about everyone in the country who is not a permanent resident. These are people with some immigration status, be they refugee claimants, care workers, farm workers, students or undocumented residents. We do not know how many such people are in the country. Canada, until a year ago, didn’t keep exit controls; we knew how many people entered but not left or whether they overstayed, et cetera.
We are the only organization because we have built a national network of all self-organized groups of migrants. Remember that much of the settlement sector and immigration sector is not allowed to serve these people by federal law, so we are the only such network. We have asked potentially a dozen times in the last few months, and we have not met with a single federal minister. In my written submissions, I’ve attached seven or eight letters that we sent that have not been responded to. We are the people who can communicate with our members. We have a strategy of how to use mainstream media and non-mainstream media to get to our people, but no one is talking to us. Therefore, this mass exploitation and abuse, which was already present, has just worsened.
Senator Kutcher: Thank you for the factual information. I will ask your opinion on one question now. For the record, I just want to say that this sounds not like employment but like indentured servitude. I want to put that on the record. That is my thought about what we are hearing.
Do you have any reason or speculation as to why all your efforts to contact individuals who have responsibilities on these files have not been responded to?
Mr. Hussan: I think the essential portion is that, for so long, our people have been treated as commodities. We don’t talk about human beings; we talk about a labour shortage. We don’t talk about dignity; we talk about ensuring food supplies. We don’t talk about decency; we talk about filling in and making sure the elderly are cared for. The migrants, the human beings who actually take care, go to school here — we don’t talk about international students; we talk about the money they put into the Canadian economy. We don’t talk about retail workers or delivery workers; we understand them simply as essential modes to ensure that all the rest of us are okay. The focus is outside.
But I think, in addition, the federal government is potentially scared because there has been so much lobbying by employers. There is so much pushback from many political parties to go out against CERB that they don’t want to extend it to migrants and undocumented people because it will be used against them. I think the federal government is unwilling to do the right thing for fear of being criticized by racist, nationalist or xenophobic elements.
It is imperative on all of us to understand that we are allowing a human rights catastrophe to take place and that, without a permanent immigration system, this will continue. Jerry said we need to think about recovery past this moment. What that means specifically is we can no longer have a multi-tier immigration system where people are denied or given different rights on the basis of some law or policy that keeps shifting. Everybody must be treated the same. They must have permanent resident status on arrival and then proceed with the same access to health care, education, social assistance, rights and responsibilities. I think we need to move away from the direction of the immigration system and talk about humanity rather than the economy.
Senator Kutcher: Thank you for that.
The Chair: Thank you, Senator Kutcher, for your question.
I still have a fair number of questions from our visiting colleagues. We have 10 minutes. We can’t really go overtime because of technical reasons, and I realize that we had to suspend the meeting and we’ve been struggling a little bit. If each of our non-member senators are brief, I believe we have time to cover each of you.
Senator R. Black: Thank you to the witnesses for being here.
My question is directed to Mr. Hussan. I am most interested in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. You certainly indicated some significant issues during your earlier remarks. As Senator Kutcher said, it is distressing. Are those mostly directed at the agricultural sector? Or are they directed elsewhere? Or is it a mix of both?
Secondly, have you raised these issues, with specific direction to the agricultural side of things, with organizations like farms who are in the business of helping to bring temporary foreign workers over here?
Mr. Hussan: On the question of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, there are about 100,000 workers in total; 60,000 are in ag; the rest are in care, meat processing, etc. I’m speaking about JBS where there are 100 migrant workers who have been potentially affected by COVID-19. Not just agriculture for sure. We are seeing this with in-home caregivers. We can also talk about retail, cleaners, tourism.
In terms of raising these issues with farms, no, we haven’t. We’ve been trying to get the federal government to just put in place very minor changes in terms of quarantine and housing at this immediate moment. Over the last 10 years, we have pushed for multiple changes, particularly to the open work permit regime, the necessity of employer housing, which is why all of these cases are occurring because people are being placed in bunkhouses and, of course, the call for permanent immigration status on arrival.
Senator R. Black: Thanks. I have a couple of other questions but I’ll pass and let my colleagues join in.
Senator Pate: Thank you to each of you for the work you do and the work of your members.
My question is for Mr. Wilkins. Given that the World Health Organization and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in mid to late March called for depopulation efforts worldwide of prisons, and given that medical professionals who work in prisons wrote to provincial and federal governments as well as MPs and senators and requested that we support a plan to reduce the numbers of people in prison in order to allow for safe hygiene and physical distancing rather than lockdowns and the imposition of conditions of segregation or solitary confinement on prisoners, and on March 25, the fact that the Minister of Public Safety announced that he had also requested a plan from Corrections and the Parole Board to release prisoners, in many provinces and territories, and internationally, work started on this.
Despite the obvious risk to your members by not reducing the numbers in prisons, and given the fact that in any given year 4,000 to 5,000 prisoners are released, given that most people in the open settings you talked about are classified as low-security prisoners and most are days, weeks or months away from release, and the fact that the number of prisoners released has been lower since March than would normally be within the context — and as Senator Omidvar pointed out, there were at least 110 that we know of who had been granted release and weren’t released from prison — and given that we’ve been hearing from a number of your members who disagree with the position taken and agree that reducing the number and the likelihood of COVID-19 spreading within the prisons is in large part based on the need to reduce the number of prisoners, why on March 30 and ongoing today, did your union take the position against the depopulation efforts recommended by the World Health Organization and medical professionals who work within the very prisons where your own union members work, and that were, in fact, also urged by the minister?
Mr. Wilkins: Our members are not against the release of inmates that are eligible for release. When it comes down to inmates that are not eligible for release on any program or their correctional plans have not been followed, of course, we feel that there is a risk that’s involved with the release of those inmates into the general public. In a lot of cases, we have to understand, too, that some of these inmates don’t have any place to go. Sometimes the institution may be the best place for them where they have the ability to have readily available health care for them.
But that aside, we are talking about the threat of the virus versus the threat to the Canadian public. It is a little bit strange to me to hear what the World Health Organization and other institutions recommend. It is kind of like Jeff Wilkins recommending to the Government of Canada that they need to do something that I’m not a professional in. Our members are professional correctional officers. They understand the dangers that are involved with the individuals that they work with on a daily basis. Of course, during a time of a pandemic when it comes to the release, I think that the Correctional Service is the professional organization. They are the ones that determine the risk. They are the ones that are the professionals when it comes to any potential danger to the Canadian public if inmates are not given their programs. We can have many different agencies and companies looking from outside into the aquarium of the Correctional Service of Canada, but the people who work there are the professionals.
Again, I know there are releases happening. Those are happening based on the analysis of risk and should continue. But the significant majority or significant release of an offender population flies completely against public safety.
Senator Lankin: I have a quick statement and one question.
Let me just say, Mr. Wilkins, that I am a former correctional officer and a former probation and parole officer. I’ve swum in the aquarium that you talk about, and I support strategic depopulation at this point in time, so there are people who have come from inside the system or who remain there who disagree with you.
My question is to Mr. Dias. You had an opportunity to begin to talk about what you think the emergency measure changes to income support should be, and I would like to give you a bit more time to talk about what your ideas are and what you are hoping to accomplish. We do know there are a number of people — we have heard today and many times in the past couple of months — who continue to fall through the program of CERB, even though there have been patches put on it, and we appreciate the work that has been done to continue to evolve it. Could you tell us what changes you think are required at this point in time as we go into the next phase of some return to work but many people still remaining unable to return to work? Thank you very much.
Mr. Dias: Thank you for the question, Frances.
To me, the biggest flaw with the CERB as it’s structured, it was obviously put in place to replace EI because EI couldn’t keep up with the demand. I represent about 50,000 workers that have a supplementary unemployment benefit at times of layoff to top up their EI. Out of those 50,000 members, the majority of them ended up laid off during this pandemic. What ended up happening, instead of collecting $573 a week on EI, they collected $500. And then the Finance Department and Minister Qualtrough decided there would be no supplementary wage top-ups based on CERB, which frankly doesn’t make any sense. So now I have thousands of auto workers returning to work who — if you take a look at the $73 a week plus the SUB that they lost — are losing anywhere between $500 and $600 a week. I have auto workers who are out over $4,000 during the two months that they were off and production workers that were about $3,000. So I don’t understand the rationale behind the government’s decision.
What they stated was that, look, they didn’t want to allow workers to have that wage top-up because it would be an incentive to lay off workers. It was a nonsense argument and it still is now. Why? Because, for example, in the auto industry, the workers were sent home because of social distancing. We had to re-engineer the plant. We had to put into place safety precautions. So that whole denial of workers the right to their negotiated benefits makes no sense. The employers are even saying to the government, “Look, we owe it to our employees. We want to pay it.” The government is saying, “No.” We don’t understand it. It’s foolish. There are tens and tens of thousands of workers out there who are furious with the government.
On the other piece, on EI, the key thing we need to do is we need to change it. You can’t have only 42% of everybody who ever applies qualify. We need to lower the bar. You need to have people being able to qualify working much fewer hours. That will really capture those workers who are stuck in precarious, non-standard casual jobs to have the ability to qualify. Because there is no question, it’s the low-wage earners that need it the most, and they are the ones that are the most disappropriately disqualified. There are a lot of changes to be made. It needs to be modernized. It needs to be fixed.
Thank you for the question.
The Chair: And thank you for the answer.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: I have a question for Mr. Hussan. Mr. Hussan, like my colleagues, I’m absolutely appalled by what you’ve told us about migrant workers. It really sounds like modern slavery.
My question is about agricultural workers in particular. I’d like to get some idea of the scope of the problem. How many complaints have you received?
More specifically, what I’m wondering is, in a case like the one where the migrants had to live off a bag of potatoes for a week, why didn’t you yourselves report both the farm and the situation to the police? These people were being starved. That’s serious. Why not report it, given that reporting does carry some weight? Also, what proportion of farms would you say are part of the problem?
Mr. Hussan: In terms of the number of complaints, we have received, on one phone line in the Niagara region over 60 days, 1,078 complaints from migrant farm workers. We have a dozen members across the country that we haven’t been able to pull together. The vast majority of organizations serving these people don’t have staff, an office or a telephone line. It’s all migrants themselves assisting each other.
For example, on this farm, these migrant workers were brought into the country and placed under quarantine. They were driven to the employer’s home and not allowed to leave, which means they couldn’t get to a telephone. They didn’t have Wi-Fi. If they could have called, they don’t know who to call. They won’t call the police, because the police will abuse and harass them. Probably the police officer’s cousin would be the farm owner, which is a fact in a lot of rural communities.
The federal government says there is a telephone line that workers can call, but it is only available in English and French, and you need a working telephone line. These are Spanish-speaking workers.
We have proposed a very specific monitoring and enforcement system during COVID-19, and it has been ignored. We cannot have a system that relies on everyday notions of how systems work. Telephone lines are not accessible; English and French are not accessible. If workers complain, their employers will find out, and they will make sure they don’t come back next year or they will send them home immediately. So you can’t have a complaints-driven process.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: But as an organization, you can lodge a complaint.
Mr. Hussan: But the workers will know. We’ve been making complaints to this phone line without any response from the federal government in a number of cases. In one case, yes, they called this employer and said, “Why aren’t you giving food to your workers?” They went to the workers and said, “Stop complaining.” That’s it; no more food was provided.
There’s no enforcement. There’s no real ability to enforce it, and workers need to have their own self-determination. Now those workers are afraid that they won’t be invited back next year, because they are on the seasonal program that is controlled by employers.
The system is actually designed to allow for exploitation. This is why we need permanent resident status, because no other roundabout way fixes it.
The Chair: Thank you very much, Mr. Hussan.
Senator Cormier, the last question goes to you.
Senator Cormier: Thank you, witnesses, for your enlightening testimony.
My question is for Mr. Hussan. As you may have heard, the government in my province, New Brunswick, banned temporary foreign workers at the onset of the pandemic. The government thought that out-of-work Canadians and students could easily replace those workers.
However, small and medium-sized businesses in the fishery, agriculture and health care sectors made it clear that the expertise of these workers was essential to their sectors. Fortunately, the government reversed its decision.
Given that the various levels of government have different jurisdictions, what should the federal government do to ensure that our provinces and territories are fully aware of the quality and expertise that these temporary foreign workers bring, and what can it do to make sure they understand why our small and medium-sized businesses, especially those located in rural areas, need to have access to these essential workers, both now and in the future?
Mr. Hussan: There are two major concerns here. We have members who were about to fly in and had to be sent home from the airport. They have been without work and without income. They can’t feed their families. They were relying on this income, and CERB is not accessible to them. The major concern isn’t just for farm owners and rural businesses, it’s for the fact that these people don’t have income. The one thing the federal government could do is extend CERB to those workers who have been denied because of no mistake on their part. That’s the first thing.
Second, the New Brunswick government is allowing permanent residents and citizens to come in and out of the province. The only reason they can shut these people out is because the federal government deems them temporary despite the fact that they are essential and needed. There is a very simple solution here: give them permanent resident status. That’s why we keep making this demand, because it’s not possible to shut out permanent residents and citizens. It’s the federal government’s immigration policy that makes it possible to exploit, abuse and exclude these essential members of our community and society.
The Chair: Thank you, Mr. Dias, Mr. Hussan and Mr. Wilkins, for your testimony and valuable expertise and for helping us in this study. We do have to suspend the meeting. I know many senators had more questions for you. Please do not hesitate, honourable colleagues, if you want to submit your questions in written form. We will make sure that the witnesses provide answers, if they so wish.
Senators, we now continue with our study on the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our witnesses this afternoon are Daniel Boyer, President of the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec, Miranda Ferrier, President of both the Canadian Support Workers Association and the Ontario Personal Support Workers Association, and Deena Ladd, Executive Director of the Workers’ Action Centre.
We will begin with your opening remarks, Mr. Boyer.
Mr. Boyer, you may begin your remarks.
Daniel Boyer, President, Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec: Thank you, senator, and thank you to all the senators for giving us a chance to speak on the current COVID-19 crisis. I’m going to try to answer the questions that were submitted to me.
First off, I’m not going to talk about the issue of health care workers, because you covered that last week, but I am going to talk about other sectors. I would divide the workers’ concerns into two groups. First, there are the workers who are going back to work as we speak, since many of them have started working again. Those who are back at work still have fears and concerns. We knew they would have to go back to work eventually, because it seems this virus will be with us for quite some time. So far, I would say that for the workers who’ve gone back to work, things are going relatively well.
Quebec had a gradual return to work, like the other provinces. But in the first sectors to reopen, such as residential construction and mining, compliance with the safety guidelines fell off after a while, about two to three weeks. We need to constantly hammer home the importance of complying with the safety guidelines. That sums up the first group of concerns for the people who’ve gone back to work. As for the ones who haven’t gone back to work yet, they have some worries. Even those who are back at work are wondering, will they go back to work only for a little while, before some companies are forced to close down? All this is very worrying.
There are problems in some sectors that haven’t heard any news about when they can reopen. For the cultural sector, for the music, movie and theatre industry, for live venues, there is no news, no game plan and no timeline for reopening. It’s unsettling for the whole cultural sector and for the tourism sector, including restaurants, hotels and conference centres. It’s understandable that those sectors aren’t open yet, and we wouldn’t want to rush the reopening, of course. At the same time, the workers in those sectors are worried. A lot of restaurants won’t be reopening anyway, and the same goes for many cultural businesses. I can tell you that the aviation sector is very anxious too. There has been talk about a possible merger between Air Transat and Air Canada, which is a source of growing concern. Workers have some serious concerns, but we’re working collaboratively through a social dialogue with employers, and I think it’s working fairly well.
Regarding support from the federal government, I can’t stress enough how important the programs created to assist workers and programs to assist businesses are. I think those programs are absolutely necessary, and I will talk more about that in a few minutes. In terms of support from the Quebec government, we have received substantial support from public agencies like the Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail. If you have a look at the CNESST website, you’ll find a full complement of tools to support the resumption of operations by sector, and it’s really interesting. A monitoring committee has also been struck, composed of employer and employee representatives, to monitor the resumption of activities in each sector. This committee does important work.
I know you also had some questions about personal protective equipment. I would say that the situation in Quebec was pretty chaotic when the crisis began. Things are going a little better now, but it varies quite a bit. Let me explain. If we are talking about a national inventory in Quebec, there is indeed enough personal protective equipment to go around. At each institution, and I am referring to health care facilities, of course, it varies a little more. Some facilities don’t have enough personal protective equipment, and that is also true in the private sector.
In terms of financial support, and this will be my final point, I must acknowledge the programs introduced by the federal government, specifically the CERB and the emergency wage subsidy, which have been extremely helpful. Yes, there have been several amendments and things have been very confusing at times, but those programs have also been the victims of their own success, since we’ve appealed to the government on several occasions, and so has the CLC, of course. We made appeals to the government because we didn’t want any workers to fall through the cracks and because it was important that those programs be available to everyone. As I mentioned, people are worried in certain sectors, including culture, tourism, the airline industry, all the non-profit organizations and the municipalities, which have not yet received any assistance. Here I mean mostly the bigger cities that have public transit. We hope additional supports will be announced, but for now, we are relatively pleased with the programs that have been brought in, even though there are some negative aspects to those programs, in certain respects.
However, we must ensure that workers have an income so they can pay their rent and put food on the table, and that they have some money as quickly as possible. Yes, support measures have been made available, but everyone is worried. These programs need to be extended in sectors that might take longer to recover. Those are the comments I wanted to share. I will be happy to take your questions.
The Chair: Thank you, Mr. Boyer.
Miranda Ferrier, President, Canadian Support Workers Association, Ontario Personal Support Workers Association: Good afternoon. My name is Miranda Ferrier, and I am the president of the Canadian Support Workers Association, CANSWA, and its Ontario chapter, the Ontario Personal Support Workers Association, referred to as OPSWA. The CANSWA is the largest professional association for front-line support workers in Canada, with over 58,000 members across Canada, with 41,000 of which are here in Ontario.
I would like to thank you for inviting me here to participate in this examination and review of the government’s response to COVID-19.
Since the declaration of the emergency order in Ontario on March 17, the CANSWA and our provincial chapters have been uniquely positioned to interact and observe responses from the community to the national level. This unique insight has afforded the association with first-hand assessments of federal and provincial policies and their impact on the front-line support worker.
COVID-19 caught our society completely off guard. In January, prior to this emergency order, the CANSWA’s chapter, the Ontario Personal Support Workers Association, OPSWA, was invited to the provincial emergency operations committee. Since that time, the OPSWA has regularly participated in these consultations and witnessed this pandemic spread from isolated cases in Wuhan, Iran, Italy and then the rest of the world.
Our ability to observe this pandemic response from all three levels of our society has resulted in the following key observations.
One: federal and provincial disconnect on emergency measures, uneven application of emergency orders nationally, federal response seemed to be lagging in areas while being proactive in others. Absence of emergency measures federally while permitting provincial flexibility lessened the impact of crisis at the community level. Some care providers felt that the absence of a federal declaration of emergency warranted a casual interpretation of certain provincial emergency orders. This resulted in delays in securing correct PPE equipment, proper staffing levels and spreading of the virus. Absence of any national pandemic strategy became apparent early on in this crisis as care providers found securing PPE extremely challenging. Exposure rates to COVID-19 were largely the result of the lack of any coordinated plan to ensure that PPE supplies were evenly distributed.
Two: provincial focus. Provinces have remained largely fixated on the long-term care and hospital settings which house the largest concentrations of vulnerable persons. Home care, however, has been largely disregarded, resulting in major disruption to the home care worker due to mass visit cancellations, financial hardship for support workers being impacted and overall uncertainty as to the future of home care in the short term. Although these actions are understandable, they remain ultimately reactive and stem from the absence of any pandemic strategy from all levels of government.
Three: the pandemic pay premium introduced by the government has been designed to lessen the impact of the social distancing measures on national and provincial economies. Although introduced with an inclusive spirit, feedback from members and partners indicates many measures and benefits are limited, payments late and application of this benefit is uneven.
Four: the onset of COVID exposed the lack of readiness in terms of PPE and the priority of the user. Consequently, access to PPE by the support worker has been sporadic and, in some extreme cases, even ignored. This resulted in the support workers bearing an unrealistic burden of the COVID-19 responsibility, resulting in the highest numbers of deaths both in number and as a percentage of the health care work force.
Five: absence of regulatory oversight of the health care support worker became glaringly obvious as the provinces struggled to adapt their care delivery strategies to align with emergency directives. Examples include no pandemic plan for home care in several provinces, no ability or mechanism to coordinate the distribution of PPE to front-line care providers in their different settings, and health human resource strategy has no provision for the front-line health care worker and no plan to address future shortages.
Despite the absence of a pandemic strategy, the CANSWA and our provincial chapters feel very strongly that our political leaders did remarkably well in putting aside partisan differences to achieve a unified national response. This, more than anything, did provide our members and those we serve with considerable confidence to face this virus professionally and with no warning.
I also must stress to this committee that prior to this pandemic, the support worker in Canada was not considered an essential service to the front line of health care. Despite this, these individuals acted with professionalism and strength equal to any member of the interprofessional health care teams.
Thank you for your time.
The Chair: Thank you.
Deena Ladd, Executive Director, Workers’ Action Centre: Hello, everyone. Thanks so much for this opportunity to present on this important issue facing many workers across the country.
The Workers’ Action Centre is a centre committed to supporting non-unionized workers, especially those in temporary, part-time, contract or precarious jobs. Most of the people we work with are low-waged men and women, recent immigrants, migrant workers and workers of colour.
Over the past 15 years, our centre has been responding to the dramatic growth of low-waged precarious employment and the changing shape of the Canadian labour market. Precarious work, as I’ve mentioned — temporary, short term, contract, part time and misclassification of employees as independent contractors — has become the norm for many workers, especially for those who are laid off in the 2008 recession.
Precarious work, also known as non-standard work, accounts for approximately one third of the employment in Canada. Many immigrant workers are pushed into work through temporary agencies to address the big issues around Canadian experience, and there is a lot of evidence to show that many newcomers are more found to be in precarious employment.
Job growth and part-time and temporary workers outstripped full-time work, with part-time jobs growing 25% and temporary employment growing 40%. We’ve also seen an increase of 43% in involuntary part-time work since 2000.
Jobs are increasingly contracted out to labour leasers, subcontractors and brokers, who in turn hire workers by misclassifying them, for example, by telling cleaners to pay fees in order to get work, app-based delivery workers who are required to pay for insurance and equipment, and the lists go on.
The reason why I’m telling you all of this is because that is the world of work that we had before us when COVID-19 hit the labour market. I think it’s important to know about these conditions, and they’re explained in more detail in my presentation brief notes.
What we’ve seen, obviously, is that COVID-19 has laid bare these fault lines in our labour market and gaps in our labour laws. This pandemic has exacerbated these issues for workers and has increased the potential rates for infection and the health impact for workers.
We found, obviously, predominantly — I’ve got a list of essential workers; I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what those have been as we’ve been so reliant on them in the last 10 weeks — new immigrants, migrant workers, undocumented workers, racialized and immigrant workers as well as women are in these jobs. In our experience, because these sectors of work are rampant with low wages, precarious employment, no benefits, no paid sick days and very low rates of unionization, these are the working conditions that essential workers have been facing on the job during this pandemic. The stress of getting infected with no access to health benefits or paid sick days has been a particularly huge issue.
Many workers are juggling part-time jobs, which has resulted in the tragic rates of infection and deaths of seniors in long-term care. However, many of these sectors also subject their workers to erratic scheduling, zero hour guaranteed contracts with very little control over hours and working conditions.
As I’ve said before, increasingly employers within these sectors are hiring workers through intermediaries. Being hired in this manner means that you have less of an ability to speak out about health and safety conditions, whether or not your employer is actually making sure there’s social distancing and ensuring that public health recommendations are being complied upon.
Speaking out results in the loss of income, which for many low-income workers is just not an option. Many of the workers who have phoned us say their employers have threatened to fire them when they’ve needed to take a leave to take care of their children or have felt unwell. With some workers experiencing no access to the emergency response benefit, they then have to take the abuse and go to work, as the consequences mean that they will have no income to cover their rent. Many of these workers do not have citizenship or permanent residency, and it’s been extremely difficult for workers to speak up and deal with the pressure from employers.
I can talk about the issue of the SIN number being a requirement to get CERB, which has been a huge issue for many of the workers that we deal with, but I do want to move to a few recommendations and I think some important steps forward.
We desperately need federal leadership on improving quality of work for workers. CERB ends on July 4 for the mass majority of workers who lost their jobs since March 15. The emergency benefit has to be extended in order to support workers in many sectors that will not open for some time, such as tourism and hospitality. This benefit has become an important safety net for millions of Canadians, and for many, especially the workers that I deal with, it’s the only thing that has stopped them from losing their housing.
We’ve been thrilled to see the federal government’s announcement of the 10 paid sick days, it’s a great step forward, but I think it’s really critical that the federal government could immediately move forward in terms of ensuring that federally regulated workers, while they’re negotiating with the provinces, should get access to this benefit. Currently, federal workers only have three paid days.
We believe that employers should pay for this because they are the ones that are in close contact with the workers. If a worker is sick or if they suspect they have COVID-19, they have to immediately go home and get tested. Employers are the closest, so they need to be able to ensure that workers have 10 paid sick days. We believe that this is a basic labour right, but for those who can’t afford it, for those small micro businesses, ones under 20, they should be able to ask for subsidies, especially right now, similar to what the government has set up with the provinces around pandemic pay.
The federal government also made it clear in their mandate letter that a $15 minimum wage federally was in the cards; this should happen. Really importantly, pandemic pay has increased hourly wages across the country much more than $15, but there are still provinces in this country that have a minimum wage set at less than $12 an hour, so essential workers are doing essential jobs for way less than $15 an hour.
The Chair: Ms. Ladd, I do want to hear you, but I will need you to conclude your opening remarks because I want to make sure that the senators do have the time for their many questions that they will have. Maybe if you can briefly conclude with your opening remarks and then we can go on with questioning.
Ms. Ladd: Absolutely. A few more sentences.
The federal government released the report of the expert panel on modern labour standards just this past December 2019. This was a countrywide consultation, and it was about dealing with the kinds of precarious employment and the changes needed to support low-wage workers. I think these recommendations — there was a whole cross-country consultation done — should be implemented.
I will save my other remarks for questions. Thank you.
The Chair: Thank you. I appreciate it.
We do have many questions. I do want to remind the senators that we ask you to keep it to five minutes, two questions and answers. We did great this morning and it did allow for all questions to be answered. Please use the raise hand function in Zoom to signify that you want to ask a question. Please identify the person that you are wanting to answer or the persons that you want answers from. That’s very helpful.
I do want to remind the senators that we have until 5:15 for the questions with the witnesses, and then we will need to move for a brief in-camera session for future work.
On that, let’s begin with Senator Poirier, the deputy chair of the committee.
Senator Poirier: Thank you to all three of you for presentations. They were greatly appreciated.
My question is for the representative from the Canadian Support Workers Association. We’ve heard of the importance of testing in a safe reopening of our economy and our social interaction. For the long-term care workers and the residents, how accessible was the testing for them? Did they need to show symptoms to be tested?
Ms. Ferrier: They did not need to be shown symptoms to be tested. Here in the province of Ontario, I know that last week or earlier this week — time is melding together through COVID-19 — the government announced that all residents in long-term care facilities have been now tested for the COVID-19, which was a huge feat for the Ontario government. I know that we are still awaiting our long-term care personal support workers to be all tested. It’s hard when they can’t get to them all, all at the same time. I forget the beginning of your question, if you don’t mind asking that one more time.
Senator Poirier: How accessible was the testing for them? Did they need to show symptoms to be tested? Following that, what was the procedure when they were waiting for the results of the tests for those who were tested? Were they sent home with pay or did they have to work until their results were received? In most cases, it would take days, if not weeks, before the results were available. I want to know what the procedure was.
Ms. Ferrier: Absolutely. Basically what happened was if they were tested, they were sent home. No, they were not paid to go home. If they were asymptomatic, meaning they were not showing any symptoms, they could still go to work. Whether they were COVID positive or not, a lot of them actually went back to work and worked until they got their results. Many of them also did sit at home, and they did not receive any money. In order to get the testing prior to Ontario saying that all of long-term care homes had priority, it was very difficult for them to get the testing unless they did show symptoms. I hope that answers your question.
Senator Poirier: My next question is for the Workers’ Action Centre. We are seeing slowly but surely the economy opening up again in various parts of the country. I’m curious, have you heard if workers are reluctant to return to work? If yes, what were their reasons?
Ms. Ladd: Yes, we operate a hotline in many different languages. We do webinars in many different communities to talk to workers about what are their workplace rights and what are the issues that are facing them. Absolutely, people are very fearful of returning to work for a number of reasons. One, first of all, they are afraid of going back to work, going on crowded public transportation buses to get to work and knowing that they won’t be able to socially distance and then going back to work not having the confidence in their employer that their employer will actually implement the health and safety recommendations that have been recommended by public health or by the Ontario Ministry of Labour. They are also reluctant to go back because many of them have children at home or elders or maybe there’s someone who is immunocompromised that live in their households, and they’re incredibly worried about bringing home that infection.
Many people are going back to work to part-time work. One of the reasons why I was wanting to describe the kinds of labour conditions is, for instance, in many of the sectors we are seeing things open back up for workers. A lot of those jobs are part time, they’re low wage, there are no benefits, there are definitely no paid sick days, and so people are also concerned about going back to work and getting sick but not having any paid sick days, and then going back to work with low rates of pay. It is in some ways beneficial to get CERB because at least you have a guaranteed income. You have the ability to pay your bills and you don’t have to deal with juggling two or three jobs and trying to make ends meet.
Senator Griffin: My first question is for Ms. Ferrier. Would you support the regulation of personal support workers, and should that be one of the observations in our report as a result of the study?
Ms. Ferrier: You are singing my mantra. We have been actively advocating for self-regulation of the personal support worker here in Ontario for the past five years. We have an entire proposal that is no cost to any government in order to self-regulate these personal support workers. In order to save the health care system in Canada, we need to give these individuals who are doing a thankless job on the front line, caring for society’s most vulnerable, the recognition and the respect that is so overdue. Yes, I totally agree it should be in your report that regulation of support workers is an absolute must.
Senator Griffin: Thank you for the answer.
My second question is also for you. Do you see a need for the federal government to declare a public welfare emergency for the proper coordination and procurement of PPE at the federal level? Where do you get your personal protective equipment, and is it meeting government guidelines?
Ms. Ferrier: To answer the first part of the question, yes, I do think the federal government needs to stay involved with the procurement of the PPE. Many of my partners and my members here in Ontario and across Canada are getting them from their provincial government. I know here in Ontario they have been nothing short of fantastic getting the PPE out, especially to the COVID-19 positive homes. However, we are still lacking in getting PPE down to the retirement homes and into the home care sector. We cannot forget about those areas because, once we do, God forbid we get a COVID-19 outbreak in one of those settings, like home care, for instance. Is it up to speed? In some places, yes, in some places, no, but where the province is providing it, yes, it is.
Senator Griffin: Thank you very much.
Senator Mégie: My question is for Ms. Ferrier. I’ve noticed there’s been a lot of talk about staff working in seniors residences and long-term care centres. Have you planned any measures or received any reports regarding home care? Those people are confined to their homes. They can’t leave to receive care. They receive personal support services, and you manage the workers who provide those personal support services. Is there a plan in place for those workers, to protect them and to protect the clients?
Ms. Ferrier: The simple answer is no. We have actually seen a mass decline in home care visits happening across our country. There have been cancellations. What we do need is a national home care strategy in order to meet the needs of these frail and vulnerable individuals in their homes. For far too long, home care has been forgotten.
When I speak about PPE, I’m also speaking about home care. They do not have the proper protective equipment in order to go into these homes if there is an issue. The really simple answer to that is a Canadian home care strategy to address these issues, absolutely.
Senator Mégie: But you haven’t received any comments since March about what’s happening with those individuals? You don’t know if they’re going into hospitals? They can’t be left without care.
Ms. Ferrier: It depends. Many of their families have either stepped up to the plate and they’re caring for them in their homes, or they do still have support workers going into the homes, perhaps not as often. In some rare cases, we have seen individuals transferred to either a hospital or a temporary stay, which we have here in Ontario. They are still getting the care.
It might not be up to what we would think is quality, but we have been receiving reports from home care. They’re down 30% in clientele. They’re down 21% in employees. This is a daunting time for home care, but thankfully families have stepped up to the plate.
Senator Mégie: Mr. Boyer, I know the FTQ is currently engaged in negotiations with the Quebec government regarding orderlies’ working conditions. Apart from salary adjustments, are there any other demands being made that would be an integral part of a health care plan to prevent another crisis? It could happen at any time, not only when we’re dealing with a coronavirus. Have you thought about other aspects, besides salary?
Mr. Boyer: Thank you for the question. Yes, the public sector is indeed currently engaged in negotiations. We are working on it on two levels. We’re hearing our government, especially our premier, say that orderlies’ salaries need to be increased. We certainly agree, but we also need to improve their working conditions. These positions need to be made permanent. There are far too many part-time positions in our public health care system. We need to give people the best opportunity to find full- or part-time positions with a minimum of guaranteed hours. We need to look closely at work schedules. Over the years, we’ve seen the advent of work schedules tailored to meet service requirements rather than workers’ needs. At the end of the day, nobody wants those positions. For instance, rather than having schedules like in the past, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 4 p.m. to midnight and midnight to 8 a.m., the shifts are from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. That meets service requirements, but not many people are interested in that kind of schedule, so those positions can’t be filled.
We’re also making representations to privately owned seniors’ homes and home care services. Negotiations are also under way there. We have requested a collective agreement decree to try to standardize working conditions for all employees, whether they work in seniors’ homes or home care, because that’s very important. Ultimately, it would be better to include seniors’ care and services in the Canada Health Act, since there is currently absolutely nothing in the act regarding care and services provided to seniors. This would force each of the provinces to take responsibility not only for the working conditions, but also the conditions for the services currently provided to seniors.
The Chair: Thank you for your answers. I heard you talk about home care and home services for seniors, but there’s also a lot of talk about the vulnerability of persons with disabilities. I imagine that what you’re saying also applies to those individuals, in some respects.
Mr. Boyer: Definitely.
Senator Munson: Thank you very much to the witnesses for being here this afternoon. We are in a crisis and there is still a lot of confusion out there. I have a few questions that don’t relate to each other but do relate to the crisis we’re in.
At this particular time, based on the remuneration that front-line workers are receiving in nursing homes across the country, are any of you aware whether health care workers are still going from nursing home to nursing home, even after two months in this crisis? I see that Miranda would like to answer.
Ms. Ferrier: Thank you for the question.
From what we’re hearing from our chapter, I think that is still the situation in Saskatchewan. I don’t believe that at this time they have a COVID-19-positive long-term care facility. In Ontario, that was shut down weeks ago, which has created, to echo my colleagues, the issue of no full-time work in long-term care or home care, and how will they make money? As it stands now, I know no one in Ontario who is going from employer to employer; they are sticking with one.
Senator Munson: I don’t know if others want to speak to that, but I find that scary after all of the conversation. I see Mr. Boyer wanted to answer.
Mr. Boyer: Yes, I’d like to answer that question.
At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of movement between facilities in Quebec’s public sector. It still happens, but much less.
What’s more worrisome, however, and this is in line with what the witness who spoke before me was saying, is what’s happening in private nursing homes. There is a simple reason for that, and it has to do with salary and working conditions. Many people work part-time and earn $13 or $14 an hour. If those individuals want to make ends meet, they have no choice but to work at more than one facility. This means that they go from one facility to the next in private nursing homes, and obviously that can lead to outbreaks in the homes. Until we address the salary situation and working conditions for those individuals, that will remain a problem. More than anything, people just want to earn a living and provide for their families, and with what they currently earn, they can’t make ends meet. It’s therefore absolutely crucial that we make things better for those workers, and this will lead to improved outcomes in terms of services to the public, to seniors and people in need.
Senator Munson: Thank you very much for that, because I find it disturbing that this is still going on. As a society, we have allowed this to happen in all of these nursing homes, private or otherwise. We’ve accepted that they get paid $15 an hour, or $12. We have accepted low wages for immigrants. We have allowed that. People are playing the blame game, but as a society we’re responsible for what we have done.
The confusing aspect for me is that today, for example, in terms of social distancing, in Ontario you can be a group of five. In Quebec, you can be 10. In some places, you can have a drink in the hospitality sector, in a bar in Manitoba or British Columbia. In Ontario, Mr. Ford says no way, not until June 9. How are the three of you dealing with this kind of confusion? This is Canada, yet we can’t go across this border. You can have a drink here. You can do this. You can’t do this. There are so many messages out there. I find it very difficult for the public to accept so many messages. I don’t know who would like to start.
The Chair: Ms Ladd wanted to add something to the previous question, so perhaps she can do that and then address this question.
Ms. Ladd: I think it is an incredibly important point you are raising. We’re not just talking about long-term care; we’re talking about group homes, women’s shelters and assisted-living facilities. All these facilities, which exist to provide important care in our communities, are filled with fabulous workers who have a lot of training but are eking out a living, working 15 to 20 hours per week. For instance, a number of the members of my organization work from 6:00 to 10:00 in the morning, and that’s their job every day. Luckily, with CERB, they at least have a bit of money so they can make ends meet. But when CERB ceases, they will have to go back to the old system, which is finding two or three more jobs to supplement that part-time job. We need to deal with the systemic root causes of why infection rates were dramatically affecting the most vulnerable citizens. It is because the structural situation is forcing workers to do multiple jobs.
To go to your second question, the messaging is very confusing. A lot of workers right now are dealing with the uncertainty of what faces them back at work. It is almost like there are two messages. On the one hand, you are told to socially distance; on the other hand, you are told that the economy is opening up and you need to get on a crowded bus to get to work.
I think many workers are struggling with the fact that CERB will be cancelled on July 4, especially if they lost their job in the middle of March. How will you make ends meet when large sectors of the economy have not even opened up yet, especially if you have someone who is immunocompromised in your household? How could you go back to work? Most programs for children have been cancelled for the summer. There are no community or recreational programs. The libraries are not open. What are people supposed to do if they are expected to go back to work?
I think it’s critical for there to be coordination so that, if we are setting September as the date for schools to reopen, that CERB gets extended to October. We need to have consistency in the advice, because there are a lot of stressed-out people right now. There is so much stress, especially for folks who have no savings or who have lost their savings during the pandemic. I have talked to many people who I am distributing food boxes to. I spoke to one woman who said, “My strategy is that I drink hot water with lemon. That fills me up so that I can survive on one meal a day.” These are the kinds of situations people are struggling with all the time. It is shocking to see the impact of precarious employment and COVID-19. This has been a lethal combination for many people in our communities.
Senator Munson: Thank you.
The Chair: Senator Munson, I know you wanted to hear the other witnesses on this question.
Senator Munson: I want to be fair to the other senators and make sure everybody has time for questions. Maybe we can keep thinking about how this country is 12 different countries now. It is very uneven in terms of service and that sort of thing. I will let others ask questions.
The Chair: I will keep you in mind if we have time for a second round.
Senator Kutcher: Thank you to each of the witnesses. I very much appreciate it. My questions are to each of you, and I would like to hear your thoughts on three issues.
First, do you feel that it is either desired or necessary — and Ms. Ferrier mentioned this earlier — that personal care workers have a self-regulatory framework?
Second, do you think it is desired or necessary that we have national standards for care in long-term care facilities?
Third, do you think it is desired or necessary that we have a national accreditation of long-term care facilities carried out by an independent accreditation group, such as Accreditation Canada, which does all the hospital accreditation in the country?
Ms. Ferrier: My answers are going to be very quick and to the point. I wrote them down. Thank you for that, senator.
First, self-regulation is a must for support workers across our country if we want to maintain this profession and build it back up into the robust profession that it once was.
Second, with respect to national standards, please, it would be wonderful if we could have national standards for long-term care. That would definitely help the excuses to stop and accountability to rise, which is exactly what we need in long-term care.
Third, with respect to national accreditation, I absolutely think we should have the same accreditation standards as what is being put forth to the hospitals.
Those are my answers.
Mr. Boyer: Thank you. I would answer yes to all three questions, but as you know, the issue of jurisdiction is rather delicate regarding health care in Quebec. We heard earlier that health care services provided to anyone who needs them should be included in the Canada Health Act. You were quite right, senator, to specify that this should apply to anyone who requires services, not just seniors. I think national, Canada-wide regulations are needed to act as an umbrella for all that, while leaving it up to the provinces to implement them. We need regulations, standards, accreditation rules, set by either Canada or Quebec. That already exists.
We need to work harder to get there, since as we’ve seen, even though some standards and accreditation rules do already exist, there are some big gaps. We need to take a close, hard look at the situation and take care of our seniors who need care.
The Chair: Thank you.
Ms. Ladd: Yes, I agree with Mr. Boyer around the Canada Health Act. We need to ensure that it is not just about regulations but that we have the money, the teeth and the enforcement that goes into it. I think you can have a lot of legislation on the books, but if you don’t have the ability to enforce it and make sure that there is actual money for it on the ground, it won’t be possible.
Absolutely there should be national standards. I think around self-regulation, the issue for myself is basically where is the workers’ voice in this? I think that in some sectors that I’ve had experience with, especially the temporary agency industry, where they’ve been pushing for self-regulation, labour standards are actually quite critical in each of the provinces. I think we need to raise the floor of standards of labour law across the country so that we have the ability to — it’s not just about regulating the industry; it’s about ensuring that there is a strong floor of protection for workers.
I think we need to ensure that there is a voice for workers at the table, because as we’ve seen through this pandemic, it is mainly women in Ontario and definitely in many parts of the Greater Toronto Area, referring to racialized women, single moms and people who have very little other voice and cannot speak out about the issues for fear of reprisals. We need to be ensuring that in those national standards that we are setting, an integral part of that are labour standards, and ensuring there is strong enforcement of those.
Senator Moodie: Thank you to the witnesses today for sharing your experiences with us. I’m going to make a short comment, and I have a question for Ms. Ferrier.
My comment is this. There is accreditation for long-term care institutions across Canada today carried out by Accreditation Canada. Like hospitals, it is voluntary.
In terms of the question I have for you, we hear there is no plan in place. There was no PPE stockpiled. There was no strategy for distribution of PPE when it came online, no resource strategy, no clear plan for the use of PPE and no regulatory oversight. We need a national home care strategy. I guess from the perspective of home care and front-line workers in long-term care, the situation has been dire. Are you able to get your concerns heard by the government? Who have you spoken to? Which level of government do you think is going to be key in fixing this? Have you shared your recommendations? How responsive have they been?
Ms. Ferrier: Thank you very much for this question. That’s a really good point. I am aware of the accreditation. I just want it to be mandatory, so I apologize for that.
To answer your first question, we are being heard. At least here in Ontario, we work directly with the premier’s office. We are in contact with them on at least a weekly basis. We find there is a lot of hesitation surrounding any sort of change in our province here of Ontario towards regulating personal support workers, setting standards and the protection of workers, to repeat what Deena said.
At this point, we feel we need the federal government to intervene, I believe, to set a national home care strategy that would include perhaps the regulation of these workers. We all use home care, in every province and territory in our wonderful nation, so I believe this should be a united team effort, if that makes sense.
Senator Moodie: You are thinking this should definitely be a federal initiative to develop standards and work with the provinces? Is that what I hear?
Ms. Ferrier: Absolutely. Yes.
Senator Moodie: Have they been responsive to you? One of the things we’re talking about here is the response of the government to COVID-19. Have you had the necessary reaction or responsiveness that you think is moving the dialogue, moving the needle to a solution?
Ms. Ferrier: Since my focus has been primarily Ontario since the outbreak of COVID-19 due to the number of members in this province, we’ve actually had a wonderful response from the provincial government here, with the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care and the premier’s office. We sit on every emergency committee — there are just so many of them — known here in Ontario. We also sit with the Public Health Agency of Canada. We are also involved in conversations as a stakeholder federally, and we do believe we are being heard. We will continue to attend those meetings and voice our opinions. I think it has been pretty good.
Senator Moodie: Thank you.
Senator Seidman: Thank you to our witnesses for being with us today.
I’d like to dig a little deeper on this whole issue of regulation and what we really mean about that, because clearly it is a really important one, and I mean regulation of health professionals. In fact, there was an article in Maclean’s on May 21 — I’m sure you are familiar with it — that was written by Laura Bulmer, a PSW advocate, registered nurse and a professor at George Brown College in Toronto. The title of the article is “How the pandemic would have been different if PSWs were regulated,” which kind of tells the story in many ways.
What are PSWs? Currently, there doesn’t really seem to be a uniformly recognized designation for PSWs. The title is often interchangeable with health care aide, personal care assistant or home attendant, just to name a few. Yet, PSWs make up a large proportion of health care workers, but unlike other health care and other allied health care professionals, they are not regulated, licensed or overseen by a governing professional body.
I did some research on the profession of PSWs, and I found that there’s little consistent information on programs in Canada. Are there programs? Are they standardized? What proportion of these personal support workers receive formal education and training now? Should there be qualifying exams, a national accrediting body, in forming this accreditation of the health profession? Because that’s basically what we’re saying when we talk about self-regulatory.
I’m going to ask all of the witnesses. I would like to start with Miranda Ferrier.
Ms. Ferrier: Thank you for that question. I’m thrilled to hear PSWs being brought up so much on this platform. I myself am a personal support worker, so can I speak quite intimately about the job that we do. I did it for many years.
Self-regulation, in our eyes at the association, is basically creating standards, having that accountability factor, that public safety factor. We compare it very often to the College of Nurses set of ideas. I hope that gives you a better idea of what we’re looking for for self-regulation.
We also believe that in order to speak for a profession, you need to be of that profession. Hence my position and my title of PSW.
For education, that’s where this gets really sticky for across Canada. The designation of PSW versus CCA, HCA, PCA — the list goes on and on — the education differs across every single province. Here in Ontario, we have to have 640 hours of in-class and clinical in order to work in long-term care facilities. There are also three different levels of curriculum: the community colleges, career colleges and the boards of education. All of them are different prices and, frankly, different standards of excellence when it comes to training. In New Brunswick, you have the community college level, which literally only teaches long-term care training for personal support workers. Then you have home support worker training, which is different. In Newfoundland, you have PCA training, which is just for long-term care facilities. You see my point. There is no easy way to answer it because there’s no direct actual standard.
Our dream at the Canadian Support Workers Association is to have a red seal across our nation, and individuals can go from province to province, if they wish, and work in long-term care homes and in home care. I cannot tell you the frustration we have at the provincial level in Ontario when I have someone that comes from one of my chapters in Newfoundland. They can’t work in a long-term care facility in the province of Ontario because it states in the legislation that you have to have graduated from a program in Ontario.
Senator Seidman: I will interrupt you because I only have five minutes.
Ms. Ferrier: I’m sorry. Go ahead.
Senator Seidman: You’re getting to answer the question. At this point, I should probably go to Mr. Boyer.
There’s the crux of the matter. There’s a huge shortage of support workers. You are bringing up the issue, Ms. Ferrier, saying that people should be able to move from province to province. The Premier of Quebec is regularly pleading for volunteers to cover the long-term care facilities.
Mr. Boyer, what do you say about accreditation, education, and the whole shortage of workers and whether the reasons for the shortage are the kinds of things that we are talking about now, that we don’t have standards and accreditation, and we don’t recognize the professional legitimacy of a core group of workers in the health field?
Mr. Boyer: Thank you for the question. I think there is indeed a lack of recognition and that this is a variable-geometry phenomenon. I think this is true for the other provinces too, but what we’ve seen in Quebec is increasing government disengagement from longer-term care and services. In the public sector, and I would say even in public long-term care homes, a personal support worker now needs about 800 hours of training or equivalent experience.
But in private nursing homes, that requirement may not apply. Right now, in private nursing homes, residents are getting 3.5 hours of care per day. Anything below that level is taken care of not by the government, but by the private sector. The private sector has totally different rules from the public sector when it comes to wages, working conditions and professional requirements. We’re kind of stuck with this.
You also mentioned Premier Legault, who announced at a press conference today that he wants to train 10,000 personal support workers this summer to fill jobs in the public sector. Where do you think he’s going to get those 10,000 personal support workers? He’s going to get them from private nursing homes and from home care, because those people earn $13 to $14 an hour. The Premier is offering them three months of paid training at the same wages a public-sector service worker gets, which is $21, much more than they’re earning now. This is going to take workers away from private nursing homes and home care, which will create another kind of problem, because the government doesn’t take care of people who need 3.5 hours of care per day or less.
The Chair: Ms. Ladd, if you could be brief, I would appreciate it.
Ms. Ladd: I would say that one of the factors in this is the lack of regulation around private colleges and the extortion that happens for a lot of women who take these personal support worker courses, how much they get charged and the quality of that.
We haven’t talked about for-profit. We’ve seen the high rates of infection in for-profit long-term care. We need to also talk about that as well.
I would say that the strategy in Ontario is to get young people who are looking for a job this summer to think about working in long-term care. Maybe that’s where they’re thinking of recruiting the 10,000 from.
Senator Seidman: Thank you. It’s something to tackle, this issue.
Senator Forest-Niesing: My first question is for the Toronto Workers’ Action Centre. Ms. Ladd, I noticed during your opening remarks that your centre offers front-line services to immigrants in several languages besides English, which is highly commendable and helpful, and I salute you for it. But the services don’t seem to be available in French, and I would like you to tell us why.
Ms. Ladd: We do not have many French-speaking workers in the community that we work with. There is a francophone legal clinic that does a lot of work for the francophone community, but if you look at the population that we deal with, we are dealing mainly with the languages that I’ve mentioned in my presentation.
Senator Forest-Niesing: Given how widely French is spoken around the world, is that a language you’re planning to offer your hotline in? Are you taking any steps to respond to potential demand for services in French?
Ms. Ladd: In the communities that we work with, these are the languages that we provide. We are not contacted much by the francophone community because there are services that are provided specifically by francophone-funded legal clinics and community groups. In the GTA, we’re dealing with probably about 50 different languages. We are a non-profit organization. We get very, very little government funding, so we have to deal with the most immediate needs because we have no core funding. These are the communities that are dealing with the violations of rights.
Obviously, if we were in another part — say we were in Sudbury where there is the Sudbury Workers Education and Advocacy Centre, which is a workers’ centre, there is a huge francophone community in that area, but in the Greater Toronto Area there is not the need. So when you are a small non-profit with little or no government funding, you have to deal with the most immediate needs.
Senator Forest-Niesing: I actually was referring to Sudbury, which is where I live. My second question is about the pandemic pay that was announced in April in Ontario, as well as a similar measure announced recently in British Columbia. My question is for either Ms. Ferrier or Ms. Ladd, who represents workers who are probably on the front lines but aren’t eligible for Ontario’s pandemic pay. Mr. Boyer, maybe you’ll also have something to say about this. My question is as follows. Do you think the categories of health care workers should be expanded to encompass workers in other types of residences, including personal residences and private institutions, such as a convent, which I’ve received a specific request about? If so, what steps have you taken to advocate for this?
Ms. Ferrier: I guess I’ll start.
Yes, I am well aware that the pandemic pay that was put out here in Ontario and B.C. was — not everyone received it. It was only the personal support workers and nurses and doctors, et cetera, that were working on the front line in publicly funded facilities, licensed retirement homes and publicly funded home care companies.
We have been very vocally against this in Ontario. Again, we do not believe in dividing workers. We all do the same job. It’s insane to say that a personal support worker working in publicly funded home care is more important than a personal support worker working in private home care. It’s atrocious, to be perfectly honest.
To look at other workers who could work in homes or long-term care facilities, I know there’s been many talks about perhaps running a quick six-week program to train individuals — [Technical difficulties]
The Chair: Ms. Ferrier, I think we’re not hearing you for now. Maybe, Senator Forest-Niesing, we can continue with Mr. Boyer, and then we’ll see if we can get Ms. Ferrier back with us.
Mr. Boyer: Quebec introduced a series of bonuses. New ones were announced just a couple of weeks ago, in fact. They apply to quite a lot of people in the public sector, and some of them apply to everyone working in hot zones, at outbreak sites, and in long-term care homes as well. Once a long-term care home records at least one case, the workers get the much-touted hot-zone bonus. To illustrate the problem of working conditions in private nursing homes, the Government of Quebec even introduced a $4 per hour bonus for personal support workers in those homes. You can imagine how much it means to get an extra $4 an hour when you make $13 to $14 an hour. Nurses and nursing assistants working in private nursing homes are getting the same bonus as public-sector nurses and nursing assistants working in hot zones where people are infected. There are new bonuses for people from the regions who have decided to come work in the Montreal area, which has been severely affected. They get bonuses and paid accommodation, and there are also monthly bonuses and bonuses for people working full-time in hot zones. Basically, there are bonuses for nearly everyone working with patients who could potentially have COVID-19. Quebec has done quite well on that front, but the fact remains that these bonuses are temporary. The problems will come back after the pandemic, because the bonuses will dry up but the working conditions won’t get any better.
The Chair: Senator Forest-Niesing, you’re out of time. I believe you wanted to hear from Ms. Ladd.
Senator Forest-Niesing: It’s fine.
The Chair: I’ll make sure we get back to you, Ms. Ladd. I apologize for this. I want to make sure that we get at least a question for each of our senators before we go into a possible second round.
Senator Omidvar: I did have my hand raised. I hope the technology has corrected itself because I would like to ask Ms. Ferrier a question, if she’s able to answer. Is that now fixed?
The Chair: I think so. My understanding is that we’re all good.
Senator Omidvar, I think your screen is freezing. It is a bit of a challenging day technology-wise. Thank you all for your patience.
Let’s move on to Senator Dasko. Then we can come back to Senator Omidvar. And, Ms. Ferrier, just stay tuned.
Senator Dasko: I had a number of questions, and I think some of them have been answered.
I wanted to make a comment about home care. Home care is seen to be the much more desirable outcome for seniors than to be living in long-term care facilities, so home care is what we should be striving for, good home care. At the same time, it’s so obvious that home care is so embedded in the provincial structures that I’m really finding it very odd to even imagine how the federal government could be involved, except giving money, because that’s what they do. Really, what else would they do? They’re not going to create programs. But I don’t want to go on about that.
Ms. Ferrier, just as a clarification on your members, I want to know if any of them are unionized. Who are their employers? Are they public sector, private sector, not-for-profit sector? Could you give me a better sense of who they all are?
I’ll also ask for clarification on the provincial $4 an hour, which Senator Forest-Niesing was asking you about. Is that a top-up? Is that $4 an hour for every hour you work, or is it a top-up and after a certain number of hours do you get it? I’m asking about Ontario because I live in Toronto. I’m an Ontario senator. Could you clarify that it is temporary? That is a whole bunch of questions about your membership and about that particular benefit. Thank you.
Ms. Ferrier: Thank you, senator. I hope I answer them right.
Number one, my membership across Canada are either unionized or non-unionized. All my members either work for-profit or not-for-profit. They work in long-term care or retirement homes. Any personal support worker or support worker or all the other names that we’re called across the country are welcome to join our association as long as they have the proper certification. We do have requirements.
On to the PPP, which we all love to talk about and I get about 300 emails a day about: personal support workers here are receiving $4 an hour top-up. If they work more than, I believe, 100 hours a month or something like that, then they would receive $250 extra, just a lump sum. This is good until August 13 in the province of Ontario.
Senator Dasko: I think that answers my question.
Do you have an overlap with Ms. Ladd’s organization in terms of members or in terms of who you represent?
Ms. Ferrier: Possibly. We do represent —
Senator Dasko: I think she’s nodding no.
Ms. Ferrier: Possibly, or probably not, no.
Senator Dasko: Ms. Ladd, I’m interested in your activism and which areas you focus on in terms of your activism. Is it on pay and working conditions or is it in the health area? Who do you spend most of your time talking to or trying to influence?
Ms. Ladd: Our main focus is on raising the floor of wages and working conditions for the entire non-unionized work force. That’s about 6 million workers in Ontario. It’s looking at people who rely on basic labour standards for their employment. Those are the folks we work with. We work with cleaners, truck drivers, couriers — basically the whole range of essential work but also the non-essential workers such as hospitality, restaurant workers, tourism, airport workers, those kinds of things. Basically most people who work for less than $20 an hour or work in precarious employment, those are our constituents.
Senator Dasko: Your activism focuses on the province then?
Ms. Ladd: Yes. But increasingly, because many of these issues are becoming national, for instance, obviously we’ve been part of trying to push forward a poverty level minimum wage of $15 an hour, and that has become a national conversation. We launched that campaign back in 2015, and now there are four or five provinces pushing for this. Obviously, it’s on the federal government’s agenda as well.
Senator Dasko: That takes me directly into my next question to you, which is your view about a guaranteed basic income and whether you are advocating for that — “yes” or “no” — and your thoughts about that, please. Thank you.
Ms. Ladd: I have a lot of concerns around the guaranteed basic income because many of the employers I work with see this as a way to deal with precarious employment and are not prepared to improve the labour standards that have been so exposed during COVID-19. For instance, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce has been very clear in saying, “We don’t need to deal with part-time issues. If we have a guaranteed basic income, that would deal with the issues of income.”
I think we need to have a more in-depth conversation around the fact that there needs to be issues around, for instance, if all of people’s guaranteed income just goes into housing, what’s the point of having a guaranteed income? I think the connections between the guaranteed income with labour standards, with housing issues, with the health and safety benefits, all of those kinds of things we need to have more of a conversation about. At this moment, I’m very concerned about where the conversation is going.
Senator Dasko: You’re very sceptical of the initiative?
Ms. Ladd: I think it could be used as a way to deal with all the issues we talked about in the labour market. I don’t think that it is the solution to that. I think it could be the solution for some segments of the community but not as a universal thing.
Senator Dasko: Thank you very much.
The Chair: While we are trying to reconnect with Senator Omidvar, I’ll jump in with one quick question.
In this study, we’re really trying to understand if the government’s response to COVID is making its way to helping Canadians. That’s the bottom of what we’re trying to achieve. Even if at some level it is provincial jurisdiction, the government did commit in its official response to bridge some gaps and to help. Is this in fact happening? Are you seeing it via your organizations?
Ms. Ladd: Yes. We were all kind of taken off guard by the worldwide pandemic. I do believe that CERB has made a huge difference in the lives of people. We know now 8 million people are on CERB. As the government found out, there were barriers, such as part-time workers, for instance, and they dealt with those issues. That was fantastic.
I do think, though, a valid social insurance number should not be a barrier, especially when you’re dealing with a health crisis. You want to make sure that cleaners, construction workers and all the kinds of workers doing the work that is largely invisible and that a lot of undocumented workers are doing in our communities are also allowed to stay home and get some benefits. For many of the people who we’re working with, especially undocumented cleaners, construction workers and dishwashers and all those kinds of jobs that we don’t like to really talk about, those are the workers that have been without benefits since March. They have greatly suffered through this. This past weekend, I was delivering a food basket to a man whose wife just had a baby, and they haven’t had income for two months. They are on the edge. We need to be thinking this through. When you’re dealing with a health pandemic, you cannot have a valid SIN number as a requirement.
Other than that, I think the CERB needs to continue. It cannot be stopped on July 4 because many of the industries are not reopening, especially where low-wage workers are impacted and affected. This is the only thing that is stopping them from losing their housing right now. That leads to another conversation around what happens around benefits, like Employment Insurance, afterwards.
Ms. Ferrier: A lot of our personal support workers are part-time, especially the ones in home care. That’s where we’re seeing the hit for personal support workers. They were already part-time, and then with the cancellation of visits, there’s not enough work. They dropped from maybe 45 hours a week down to five hours a week. A lot of them opted to take the CERB. They haven’t had an issue getting it, from what we’ve heard. We’ve been able to assist them and direct them due to our relations with the provincial government and the federal government. They’ve given us that information and we passed it on.
The rest of our workers that are in long-term care, licensed retirement homes or public home care, they have been singing the praises of the government in our groups as of late as they have been receiving the PPP. So far, so good from our end.
The Chair: Mr. Boyer, do you have anything to add, briefly?
Mr. Boyer: I said it at the outset. We need to remember that at the very beginning of the pandemic, the federal government decided to enhance the employment insurance program. We had grave concerns about the administration of this program, which is far from easy. Creating the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the Emergency Wage Subsidy was a good idea. The CERB was implemented quickly. People got access to money very quickly. This program needed to be implemented, but as I said [Technical difficulties]. Some sectors are in more trouble than others, and the government should consider extending these programs beyond the original end date.
There’s still a lot more work to be done in the medium and longer terms, especially with regard to health care services. I think this issue needs to be tackled right away, both in private nursing homes and in home care. We need to get started now. There were problems before the pandemic, and they got worse during the pandemic. It’s time to clean house and give seniors and people in need the services they expect.
The Chair: Thank you.
Senator Omidvar: Thank you to the technical support staff in making sure that we are able to deal with this technology.
I have a question for each of our wonderful witnesses. Thank you for being here.
My first question is for Ms. Ferrier. I notice in your presentation you said that you have 58,000 members across the country, with most of them in Ontario. I’ve just looked on your website, and, obviously, your membership is available based on a fee and the fee is tax deductible, but is it fair to assume that there are way more than 58,000 PSWs in Canada?
Ms. Ferrier: Bang on. Absolutely. We’re only hitting a very small number of support workers. We would guesstimate that in Ontario alone there are approximately 130,000.
Senator Omidvar: Okay. So here is my next assumption for you to verify or not: My assumption is that in fact a huge percentage of the PSWs would be female and would be immigrants or minorities. Is that correct?
Ms. Ferrier: No.
Senator Omidvar: Please clarify.
Ms. Ferrier: There seems to be a big focus on the GTA when you look at Ontario, for instance. In the GTA, yes, the majority of personal support workers are of different ethnic backgrounds. Many of them are immigrants, and a lot of them are single women. But then as you go from the GTA outwards to the rest of Ontario — and I’m using Ontario as an example — you get more into Caucasian, 30-35 is the demographic, a single mother, divorcee. That’s typically what we see.
Senator Omidvar: Okay. Ms. Ferrier, you referenced in your remarks somewhere that PSW used to be a robust profession in the past. Could you clarify for us? What’s the difference between today and yesterday?
Ms. Ferrier: I’ve been a PSW for almost 15 years. Fifteen to twenty years ago, people would drive their own cars to long-term care facilities. The health care aides at that time would be able to take time with them and not have a ratio of one to fifteen residents in long-term care. They would have a ratio of one to five. They would have that time to be that support worker to these individuals. Now we’re seeing, and this started about four years ago, that we’re losing personal support workers at a 33% rate quarterly because they want to work at other places, they are exhausted and the burnout is immense. Somewhere in the last 20 years, we lost that quality care aspect and that continuity of care aspect that Canadians, truthfully, outwards looking in, are known for. So that’s what I meant by “used to be robust,” and now we’ve lost that.
Senator Omidvar: Thank you so much.
My last question is a brief one for each of you to react to. Angus Reid has just put out a poll, and it has found that two thirds of Canadians support the government takeover of long-term care homes, whether that government is national or provincial. Can I get a reaction from each one of you on the upside and the downside? I think we have heard some of the upsides, but I do want to hear about the downsides, and I’m sure Mr. Boyer will have something to say there. Let’s start on that question with you, Ms. Ferrier, if we can.
Ms. Ferrier: Absolutely. I will admit that when we found out that a hospital had taken over control of two long-term care facilities here in Ontario the other day, I was happy to hear so. I don’t think that these long-term care facilities were necessarily set up to deal with a pandemic of this proportion, especially how hard it has hit our long-term care facilities. I think right now, while we’re looking at revamping the long-term care sector, fixing the long-term care sector, the government should be involved. I don’t want them involved past that. I think once we fix it, they need to give control back. That’s what I believe.
Senator Omidvar: Okay. Perhaps Ms. Ladd has a point of view on this — nationalization of long-term care homes, long-term care standards, all of that.
Ms. Ladd: Absolutely, I agree. I think where you’ve seen B.C. have stepped in, provincially, they’ve taken the best standards and implemented them, and I think we’ve seen the results of that in terms of lower rates of infection. Absolutely I think that introducing for-profit, long-term care has been an absolute disaster in Ontario, and the results speak for themselves. Thanks.
Senator Omidvar: Mr. Boyer?
Mr. Boyer: I fully agree. This was something I mentioned earlier. The government is disengaging more and more from providing care and services to people in need. We’re seeing the repercussions of this disengagement as we speak. So yes, I am in favour of greater nationalization of all services and care, so that people in need can receive the services they’re entitled to expect.
Senator Omidvar: Thank you, Mr. Boyer. I did not have access to the interpretation, but I will read the record. Thank you very much.
Mr. Boyer: Thank you.
Senator Cormier: Thank you to the witnesses for their presentations. My question is for Daniel Boyer. First, I would like to thank you for pointing out the many challenges being faced by workers in the arts and cultural community. As you know, despite the fact that the cultural industry represents $53 billion of our GDP, many artists and workers are living almost below the poverty line. The cultural industry is losing $4 billion every month. Despite the federal government programs and the announcement made by the Minister of Canadian Heritage regarding the creation of a $500-million emergency fund, there are many concerns about the survival and the future of the cultural industry. How can we get people back in performance venues? How will the private sector continue to contribute to the cultural industry? What is the future of the film and television industry? People are calling for a long-term plan. I know that you are not from that industry, but given that the provinces and territories do not all contribute to the cultural industry in the same way and jurisdictions being what they are, I wanted to ask you this: in your opinion, as the president of the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec, what should the federal government’s priorities be to ensure the survival of cultural industry workers? Some people are suggesting, for example, that the government create a national stabilization fund for artists and cultural workers and organizations. In your opinion, is that a solution that could help the federal government ensure the future of this industry?
Mr. Boyer: The FTQ represents many people from the cultural industry, such as television workers, stage technicians and members of the Guilde des musiciens et des musiciennes du Québec. Yes, we have major concerns and we think it is a good idea to have a stabilization fund. However, the fact that there is very little consultation with people in the cultural industry is a problem in both Quebec and Canada.
I must admit that we are concerned. The government definitely needs to consult people in the arts and cultural community in order to establish a plan. You are absolutely right. A stabilization fund could be a good solution, but there may be other things that could be done. The silence on the part of both the federal government and the Government of Quebec is somewhat worrisome and so, no, there is no game plan. There is no short- or medium-term vision for reopening and easing restrictions in this industry, even though there have been some rather timid initiatives regarding the filming of some series. However, we know that there are limits on this type of activity.
You are completely right. We are having a somewhat difficult time envisioning how to reopen performance venues and movie theatres and make them profitable. It is all well and good to admit only one-third of the usual audience members, but I am not sure that would be enough. We are worried and we are calling on the two levels of government, in Quebec and Ottawa, to bring together people from the cultural community so that we can find solutions together. To date, the initiatives have been far too timid, in my opinion.
Senator Cormier: Quickly, so that I can understand the consultation issue, in your case, is there no long-term game plan because of a lack of consultation between the federal government and the Government of Quebec?
Mr. Boyer: No, it is a lack of consultation with cultural workers and employers. The people who work in the cultural industry need to be involved, and one of the two levels of government needs to consult people in the industry. It is not just about consultation between the two levels of government.
Senator Cormier: Thank you very much.
The Chair: Thank you, Senator Cormier. Mr. Boyer, I hope you won’t mind me adding that all of your references to the performing arts reminded me of the challenges facing the sports community. That is another discussion, but it is the same type of challenge in the medium term.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: Thank you to everyone for being here and to Daniel Boyer in particular because I am going to ask him this question that may also make it possible to answer some other questions. You said that you would support national standards for long-term care facilities and seniors’ residences in general. Am I to understand that you think that, if there were national standards, or a federal law, it would improve the safety of patients, of Quebecers, in these residences? In that regard, you no doubt heard Premier Legault say that he would take the money if Ottawa had more but that the province was able to properly manage the situation.
I would like to hear what you have to say about the apparent difference between your point of view and Mr. Legault’s, not so much from a political perspective but to understand whether you really think that the federal government needs to intervene to better protect Quebec’s seniors.
Mr. Boyer: The health care sector falls under provincial jurisdiction. We agree with the Premier of Quebec, Mr. Legault, but at the same time, there is a minimum that needs to be done by the federal government. That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about the need to amend the Canada Health Act to include all of the services and care needed by Quebecers. Obviously, the standards must be established by each province, but there have been cuts to federal health transfers to the provinces. Over the years, the provinces have been receiving less and less in federal health transfer payments.
For a short time, Quebec was receiving 50% of its health care funding in the form of federal health transfers, but now that has dropped to 23%. Those transfers need to be increased. The federal government also needs to establish guidelines under the Canada Health Act.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: Do I have time to ask a follow-up question?
The Chair: A brief one.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: My question concerns public and private long-term care facilities. You want all seniors to be part of the public system. I was wondering what you are basing that on. Obviously, I completely support government intervention and I hope that the government will be in charge, but at the same time, when we look at the situation in Quebec — and correct me if I’m wrong — there have been a lot of deaths and outbreaks in both public and private long-term care facilities.
We cannot say that sick people in public facilities were better protected. I would therefore like you to tell me why you are saying the system should be 100% public.
Mr. Boyer: First, there are also problems in the public sector. I have said it from the beginning. The facilities in the public sector are underfunded and there are problems related to working conditions, but at the same time, we think that the government should be able to ensure oversight. I am not saying either that the government should be overseeing apartments for seniors in facilities that offer services and care. We are not there yet. We believe that the system should be nationalized. We do not believe that the system should be regulated like public long-term care facilities are but that they should be better regulated.
The government needs to undertake a reform of the public system and incorporate seniors’ residences into the public system. What is more, Mr. Legault said a few weeks ago that he was looking into that, and we, at the FTQ, believe it is a worthwhile option.
Senator Miville-Dechêne: Thank you.
Senator Pate: I want to thank the witnesses for the incredible work you do. As someone who has a mom in a long-term care home and who speaks to her personal support workers every day, I owe a huge debt of gratitude; and to Ms. Ladd, for the work you’re doing, as someone who has family members who benefit from the advocacy you do, thank you for that.
Ms. Ladd, I want to pick up on the point you made. Ms. Ferrier, you may want to add in, and Mr. Boyer as well. The emergency benefit is really a form of a guaranteed livable income. Many who are advocating, including labour activists, see it as part of a potential reconstruction of an economic health and social safety net that has been demonstrated through the pandemic to be in massive need of reconstruction or construction, depending on how you put it. Many of us who are talking about this are talking about it in conjunction with labour protections, landlord-tenant regulations and tax regulations, and talking about it as a universally accessible income, not a universal basic income. Would that change your perspective on whether there should be a continuation or expansion of a guaranteed livable income type of initiative?
Ms. Ladd: Absolutely. We just had a huge meeting with many of our members. We had a passionate debate about the guaranteed income. What it comes down to is, absolutely, all the issues that you mentioned.
If you are getting $2,000 a month and $1,500 to $1,800 of that is immediately being taken away to your housing costs, it doesn’t really systematically deal with some of the structural barriers that are existing in terms of affordable housing, rent control, access to the internet, making sure that our employment insurance system is robust, that we have drug and dental benefits, and all of those additional benefits that people on social assistance really rely on in order to survive. There isn’t a sense of how all of that is going to work together, and the concern is who is implementing it.
With the provincial government we have, which has actually clawed back social assistance instead of allowing the full CERB payment to be given to people who are the most vulnerable, who are on ODSP and OW, it causes great concern in terms of how that will be implemented and the kinds of measures that will be taken to strip people from getting assistance on housing, drug and dental benefits, special diets and all these other things.
What is surrounding the benefit? Is it then allowed to actually do what it is supposed to do, or does it just become another stopgap measure in light of all these other issues? So, yes, I totally understand your point.
Senator Martin: I don’t have a question, but I want to say one thing. Like Senator Pate, my mother is in care and has been for the last eight years. One of the things I sincerely appreciate is that the care workers have become part of our family. I talk to some of them, as well as the nurses, and I know they also have family in care, so during this period they are not able to see their own family members but they’re caring for ours. I want to add those remarks and say I think they’re angels walking on this earth, and I know how much our family has appreciated everything they have done. To my colleagues who asked all the wonderful questions and to all the witnesses here, thank you so much for what you’re doing, and I want you to know just how appreciated you really are.
The Chair: Thank you, Senator Martin. I think we all echo your thoughts. They are the perfect words to end this meeting today.
I do want to thank our witnesses very warmly. It has been fascinating and helpful to our study of this response of the government to COVID-19. We truly appreciate your assistance in our work.
I will now ask my colleagues, is it agreed, honourable senators, that we now proceed in camera to discuss future business? All those in favour, please raise your hand in response and keep it raised for 10 seconds. Please lower your hands. All those opposed? All those who abstain?
It is agreed, and I ask that we wait until the clerk advises that the committee is now in camera. Again, many thanks to our witnesses.