Emergency Town Hall on Omicron Crisis: Workers’ on the Frontline

by Kiri Vadivelu
On Tuesday, January 11, 2022 at 7p.m. over 300 front-line workers from coast to coast joined a Zoom Conference in response to the Omicron crisis. The conference host, Justice for Workers Organization, was overwhelmed by the participation and passion of frontline workers from variety of sectors, including health, education, transportation, agriculture and newly emerging freelance/ gig workers.  The conference included special guest Ontario New Democratic Party (ONDP) Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) Peggy Sattler from London West, guest speaker Dr. Naheed Dosani, and observers from the Migrant Rights Network, along with Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL). 
The conference began with an Indigenous land acknowledgement; then, workers from nursing, teaching and migrant workers led the presentations by sharing their first hand experiences on the front-line. All speakers expressed how they are painfully exhausted and let down by the support system and questioned the great failings of political leadership to save lives in the current pandemic. A migrant personal support worker reported that she is not eligible for any benefits due to her temporary worker status and lacks enough money to purchase Advil and Tylenol that she needed in order to pull through 12 hour shifts regularly –  the new norm of worker exploitation in developed countries. 
Demanding justice for workers is not a radical demand.  Insisting to save lives of the socially, economically and politically vulnerable in the crisis is not a radical demand.  What is radical is having no empathy for workers. Allowing systemic racism, ableism and classism to be used as an excuse to deny justice is undeniably, radically outrageous. “Governments have abandoned the workers through promoting the idea that Omicron as less severe without scientific evidence” said Dr.Naheed. Furthermore, reducing isolation from 10 to 5 days instead of expanding 10 paid sick days is a cynical business decision. 
The conference unanimously agreed that worker issues in the pandemic are human rights violations. The loopholes within existing laws, the two-tier system, and the lack of enforcement was destroying the health and safety of workers even prior to the pandemic; then, COVID-19 just accelerated the destruction. After two years of pandemic, government has still not shown any determination to adopt better policies to improve working conditions for front-line workers. Workers of all industries were among the first victims of the pandemic –  determined to connect with one another despite the health crisis. 
The Migrant Rights Advocacy group argued that workers are pitted against each other through distribution of benefits based on citizenship status. All workers need to be treated fairly and provided the help needed in the pandemic.  Justice for workers is undeniably necessary. Due to increasing Omicron infections, outraged workers expressed their discontent through hundreds of phone calls and email messages to office of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, and to regulatory agencies.  Sadly, the meeting failed identify capitalism as the root cause of the crisis that all workers face today. However, the courage and determination to fight to free workers from horrendous conditions took on a pre-revolutionary tone not heard in a long time.