A labour economist is calling on the federal government to provide emergency income support to workers in Ottawa who were unable to work as a result of the so-called “freedom” occupation of that city.
The three-week long occupation protesting public health protections was cleared last weekend. However, some low-waged workers in the downtown area lost hundreds of dollars in pay after the Rideau Centre mall and other businesses were forced to close as a result of unmasked protesters harassing employees during the occupation.
Jim Stanford, an economist and director of the Centre for Future Work, said in a statement this week that the federal government should extend emergency supports similar to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) to workers who were significantly impacted by the occupation.
“This was definitely a lockdown, although not one implemented by the government,” said Stanford. “Thousands of workers lost hours and income due to the actions of anti-vax occupiers, and those losses are clearly an indirect consequence of the pandemic.”
Last week, The Maple spoke to Juliana Cruz, a cleaner at the Rideau Centre who lost around $900 in wages over two weeks after the mall closed during the first weekend of the occupation.
“We're left without our wages, and we're not to blame; it's not our fault that these people are here in the city,” said Cruz at the time.
Chris Lee, a representative with Cruz’s union, SEIU Local 2, told The Maple that approximately 100 of his union’s members were impacted by building closures during the occupation, and others did not feel safe going into work.
In addition to being harassed by occupiers, some service workers in Ottawa reported being physically assaulted for wearing masks during the occupation.
Lee noted that members of his union struggled to pay their bills as a result of the lost pay. He explained that some had to use up dwindling sick days to cover some of their lost wages, and their income was not covered by employment insurance or existing pandemic benefits.
There were also concerns about employers potentially pocketing the unpaid wages, as some building owners may have continued paying the companies for cleaning services.
Lee said: “We think that governments can do way more, whether it's providing more access to paid sick days, or other benefits that can make sure that some of the workers who have faced long layoffs continue to be fully covered, or have their wages fully protected during these times.”
Last weekend, the federal government announced it would provide Ottawa businesses impacted by the occupation with $20 million in support. In a news release, the government said individual businesses can apply for non-repayable benefits of up to $10,000 each.
“Equivalent support must also be provided to affected workers,” said Stanford. He suggested that affected workers be paid $500 per week, the same amount as CERB, with the same qualifying conditions as the now-defunct emergency benefit.
According to Stanford, 5,000 workers were impacted by the occupation. Covering their lost income for the three-week period of the occupation, he said, would cost the federal government less than $7 million.
“Contrary to the rhetoric of the occupiers, this protest was never about supporting workers affected by public health measures,” said Stanford, echoing similar concerns expressed by SEIU’s Chris Lee last week.
Lee told The Maple: “None of us believe that [the occupation] is about working-class people. Working-class people don't have the option of leaving their jobs.”
In the latest episode of The Maple’s North Untapped podcast, Humber College history professor and author Tyler Shipley explained: “Fascism is of the petite bourgeoisie. It's not of the working class. Those people in Ottawa are owner-operators of those trucks; the vast majority of truckers in this country right now are trucking, and they're trucking under very dangerous conditions and being paid very poorly.”
“For this movement to claim that it's a working class movement, even when it's fighting against measures that would protect working-class lives … is just ludicrous,” he added.