Our Lives are Essential: Chinese Canadian Frontline Workers Pandemic Report

Toronto — Chinese Canadian frontline workers are facing a parallel pandemic of racism as well as COVID-19 itself. A new report from the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter (CCNCTO) highlights low wages, long hours, high stress and unsafe working conditions during the pandemic. The report, entitled “Our Lives Are Essential: Chinese Canadian Frontline Workers Pandemic Report” was an effort of more than 50 volunteers, members and workers, who collected 295 surveys and 11 in-depth interview stories. Most workers surveyed are employed as personal support workers, in restaurants, grocery stores and factories.
Highlights from the report include:

Frontline workers work long hours for low wages under dangerous conditions,

Workplaces feel unsafe for the majority of frontline workers,

An overwhelming majority of frontline workers feel powerless to change their circumstances,

Frontline workers suffer from high stress and other negative mental health impacts, and

Workers demand meaningful policy and legislation changes that ensure working-class families’ equal access to decent and secure opportunities.

Interview stories co-written by youth and workers included in the report provide a personal perspective at the vulnerabilities and marginalization of Chinese Canadian frontline workers. Disproportionate health risks, language barriers, exposures to racism, economic disparity and precarious immigration status are all vulnerabilities that have intensified during the pandemic. One story documents the hard choice faced by an undocumented cleaner during the pandemic, whether to see her critically ill mother the last time in China or to take care of her ill daughter in Canada. Another story details how an undocumented grocery store worker escapes death after receiving a flyer from community volunteers at his workplace during the pandemic.

To contextualize the report in a larger context of systemic racism, Kennes Lin, Co-Chair of CCNCTO, said:

“Many Chinese Canadians face the brunt of systemic and interpersonal racism during this pandemic working in grocery stores, restaurants, massage work, the sex industry and the health sector. We must contextualize this marginalization in the Chinese Canadian community with the histories and ongoing erasure and exclusion experienced by Indigenous, Black, Muslim and people of colour communities. That despite our struggles feeling different, these struggles are intertwined and connected through the violence from white supremacy. These are commitments we strive to maintain as we work towards a post-COVID-19 recovery that is socially and economically just.”

In regard to racialized essential workers’ labour conditions during the pandemic, Deena Ladd, Executive Director of the Workers Action Centre, said:

“Racialized workers in essential work such as warehouse and logistics, healthcare, food processing, cleaning and groceries have been risking their health and lives on a daily basis during this pandemic. Little to no access to paid sick days, no protection against speaking out on public health violations in the workplace, little enforcement of rights and facing a rise in racism are just a few of the difficulties that workers have endured. Where was the Ontario government in making sure workers had the labour protection they needed to keep safe? During this pandemic, the Ontario Government had the chance to do the right thing such as ensuring at least 10 paid sick days. CCNC’s report clearly illustrates the failure to ensure adequate protection. ”

Speaking about migrant workers’ experiences during the pandemic, Elene Lam, Executive Director of Butterfly (Asain and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network), said:

“Migrant workers are heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic; most of them, however, are excluded from accessing resources and other forms of support, and from obtaining immigration status. The pandemic has exacerbated inequalities, discrimination, and heavy policing and over surveillance of marginalized communities. For Asian migrant workers, these difficulties are exacerbated even more by anti-Asian racism. Specifically for the Asian and migrant message workers, they are being targeted by the law and by law enforcement; the instruments of this targeting include ID requirements, emergency orders, anti-trafficking raids, and shutting down massage parlours. Asian workers in massage parlours and in the sex industry are continuously harassed, arrested, charged, and ticketed. We need policies to grant immigration status to all migrant workers, and to address the inequalities and injustices inherent in the current social structure.”

Speaking about how the report could serve as a powerful reminder for the policymakers, Gary Yee, Interim Executive Director at Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, said:

“I commend CCNC Toronto for its work in reaching out to frontline workers in our community and presenting their personal stories and lived experiences in such a compelling manner. All workers, and especially frontline workers, deserve more legal rights and support for enforcing their rights. Those with the power and influence in our society would be well-served by increasing their knowledge and empathy about what it means to be a worker who faces violations of their rights in the workplace while also facing fear or powerlessness over what they can do to seek fairness or protection. How we treat the most marginalized in our society reveals our values and who we are.”

Speaking on the recommendations of the report, Jessie Tang, co-Executive Director at Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter, said:

“We need policies and resources to fight racism and anti-Asian racism as documented in our previous fight Covid racism report. In the meantime, the working-class Chinese Canadian community has strong and clear demands on policies that can protect the workers and our family, such as 10 universal paid sick days, statutory minimum wage increase, decent jobs for marginalized groups, wealth tax, affordable housing and status for all migrant workers. The government needs to listen to the community immediately and take it seriously. ”

Source: Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter