From being labelled ‘heroes’ and ‘essential workers’ to losing pay premiums in the midst of a crisis: What happens to frontline food workers when the pandemic is over?
I recently came across an article published in The Atlantic which has been on my mind. It voices the frustration of a frontline grocery store worker who is tired of being called a ‘hero’. The article’s title, Calling Me a Hero Only Makes You Feel Better, strongly suggests that frontline workers, even as they are hailed as heroes, struggle with the challenge of making a living wage, and that ‘hero’ is a meaningless label in terms of that struggle.
On June 11, Loblaw’s chairman Galen Weston announced the termination of the $2 per hour premium that had been introduced in light of the pandemic. Mr. Weston argues that since grocery store workers have now adjusted to the “new normal” in their workplaces, the $2 “hero pay” supplement is no longer necessary. This logic seems to assume that since the majority of Ontario regions have entered Stage 2 of the Province’s reopening plans, the wage increase is not needed. In other words, everyone can just return to the way things were pre-pandemic. This assumption flies in the face of the evidence that frontline workers continue to face considerable risks. It ignores the disconnect between the meagre pay of food workers and the soaring profits for such companies. It ignores that many grocery workers find it a challenge to make a living wage.
The praise that corporate food executives have bestowed upon frontline workers rings hollow in this light. Indeed, in these challenging times, offering the title of ‘heroes’ to these grocery store and other food workers simply masks other underlying issues, including that many of them have little choice but to continue to work despite the heightened risks that such jobs continue to entail. This results in a cognitive dissonance among the public, which eagerly anticipate some sort of ‘normalcy’, while paying lip-service and contributing to the myth-making around these frontline workers as ‘heroes’. For the latter, a return to such a ‘normal’ is far from satisfactory. Clearly, if the $2 hero pay can evaporate so easily, so can the disposable title of ‘hero’ in a post-pandemic world.
The silver lining of this pandemic may be that it exposes for us all to see how fragile our food system is in terms of supply chains, and the vulnerability of the precariat—the class of workers whose jobs entail considerable risks in a crisis situation, and who regularly face sub-normal working conditions, pay, and job insecurity during ‘normal’ times. The important contributions made by workers throughout the food system are worth considering in this regard. Every one of us has the obligation to meaningfully support grocery store workers, farmers and farm workers, and everyone else who labours in the harvesting, packing, transportation, stocking and delivery of food, in struggles for decent wages and working conditions. Not just in these crazy times, but after the pandemic is over. Just calling them ‘heroes’ is not enough.
Written by Stella-Luna Ha
The 60 Seconds Impromptu Series is a collection of brief reflections on food system developments in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.