As millions suffer from the pandemic, who’s getting rich?
This piece originally appeared on Briarpatch
Foodsters United stage a protest in front of Foodora’s local headquarters after the company abruptly announced its withdrawal from Canada. Photo courtesy of Anna Bianca Roach.
“Jeff Bezos set to be world’s first trillionaire as coronavirus helps Amazon.”
The Daily Star headline, which sparked outrage on Twitter, sums up the vile reality of COVID-19: while millions of people lose jobs and struggle to pay rent, the pandemic is a windfall for billionaires. Despite corporate ad campaigns reminding us that we’re “all in this together,” the pandemic is not affecting us all in the same way. Research shows that communities who were already made vulnerable before the crisis are bearing the brunt of the devastation: low-wage workers are far more likely to lose their jobs, Black and Indigenous communities have higher rates of infection and death, LGBTQI2S people are being hit harder by the financial impacts, and some of the largest outbreaks are occurring among populations of migrant workers. As millions struggle to meet basic needs, a small group – mainly the suppliers of those needs, like Amazon – are seeing record profits.
Black and Indigenous communities have higher rates of infection and death, LGBTQI2S people are being hit harder by the financial impacts, and some of the largest outbreaks are occurring among populations of migrant workers.
Resource Movement and Briarpatch co-hosted a webinar discussion between researchers and social movement leaders about the few who are currently benefiting from the suffering of the many, and what can be done to curtail these abuses.
Facilitator David Gray-Donald from Resource Movement welcomed Simran Dhunna, an organizer with Climate Justice Peel; Thomas McKechnie, one of the founders of Justice for Foodora Couriers; Ricardo Tranjan, senior researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives; and Rama Fayaz and Alexis Phillips, organizers with ACORN Canada to discuss some of the tactics large corporations are taking to consolidate wealth and power during the pandemic. Happily, the conversation ended by highlighting the growing networks of people and movements offering big solutions to these formidable problems.
Who are the pandemic profiteers?
As Dhunna pointed out, despite the crisis, construction has been continuing on extractive projects, including TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline and the federal government’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Ongoing construction puts workers and neighbouring Indigenous communities alike in danger of a viral outbreak, while Indigenous sovereignty continues to be trampled. A COVID-19 outbreak from a tar sands camp in Alberta, for instance, spread across five provinces, infecting 106 people and killing two Elders in a Dene village in northern Saskatchewan. The federal government is even providing a $1.7 billion stimulus package for the oil industry to clean up orphaned and abandoned wells – public money going to fund work that was “the companies’ moral and legal responsibility to begin with,” says Dhunna.
McKechnie followed by pointing out the record-breaking profits being hauled in by the corporations that dominate Canada’s food supply chain – from agribusiness companies like Cargill, to grocery stores like Loblaws and their home delivery services like Instacart, to food delivery services like UberEats and Foodora (the latter fled the Canadian market in April, after McKechnie and others won the right for Foodora Couriers to unionize). These services are, of course, essential to facilitate physical distancing measures and in seeing people through the crisis. But, as Dhunna and McKechnie both noted, many of these companies are making their profits by treating their workers as disposable, and by doubling down on their massive carbon footprints. Cargill, for instance, has been cited having a carbon footprint bigger than that of Denmark, Bulgaria, and Sweden combined. Foodora has long misclassified their workers as independent contractors in order to deny workers the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining.
The federal government is even providing a $1.7 billion stimulus package for the oil industry to clean up orphaned and abandoned wells – public money going to fund work that was “the companies’ moral and legal responsibility to begin with,” says Dhunna.
But these aren’t the only large companies enjoying a windfall by monetizing necessary goods. Landlords are also continuing to profit off providing shelter, at a time when many people are finding it impossible to pay rent. Tranjan explains that those who oppose rent freezes, forgiveness, or strikes often invoke the stereotype of the typical landlord as an elderly woman renting a room in her house to college students. In reality, only 340,000 homeowners across Canada rent out part of their residence, housing about 6 per cent of the tenant households across the country. Tranjan’s research shows that, in contrast, the 20 largest landlords alone own 20 per cent of all rental units throughout Canada. These landlords are, overwhelmingly, Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITS), financial vehicles that manage assets on behalf of investors. Tranjan says that many REITs and corporate landlords wouldn’t necessarily lose money if they evicted tenants, since that would mean being able to raise rents and enjoy even larger profits in the coming years.
On the other side, “many tenants are being forced to choose between paying rent and buying food for their families,” says Fayaz. Fayaz and Phillips note that families that ACORN works with have still been getting eviction notices, even in jurisdictions that have banned landlords from evicting tenants during the pandemic. Worried about the future as well as their immediate survival, they’re forced to borrow from payday lenders at exorbitant rates – as much as 780 per cent interest – creating a vicious cycle of debt, as Fayaz calls it.
Tranjan says that many REITs and corporate landlords wouldn't necessarily lost money if they evicted tenants, since that would mean being able to raise rents and enjoy even larger profits in the coming years.
This is especially acute for those with precarious and low-paying work. According to analysis by the CCPA, about 650,000 workers making $16 an hour or less have had their jobs protected by emergency measures, but they work in industries like retail or sanitation that put them at very high risk of being exposed to the virus. They must continue to risk infection in order to keep their jobs, or quit without then being able to claim CERB. Yet, these workers are living almost paycheque-to-paycheque, as Tranjan found in a recent report. His research revealed that about half of the 3.4 million Canadian households who are tenants and rely on wages or salaries as their primary source of support have less than one month’s worth of savings, and over a million have less than two weeks. Hence the “vicious cycle” of survival-debt that Fayaz and Phillips warn about.
And although housing and food are the most obvious necessities targeted for profiteering, the internet has also been proven to be an essential service – one that’s under the control of large corporations. Telecommunications companies like Rogers and Bell continue to offer only market rates for their services, making working and studying from home impossible for low-income households. “Children are at home and don’t have internet” for schooling, Phillips pointed out. ACORN has demanded $10/month high speed internet plans for low-income families, now and after the pandemic.
How are we going to stop the profiteers?
Tranjan, Fayaz, and Phillips all highlighted the need for federal intervention into the housing market. Tranjan argued that a long-term ban on evictions coupled with rent forgiveness is necessary, so that tenants don’t get a massive bill for backed-up rent come the fall. Similarly, Fayaz noted that ACORN has long advocated for more stringent rent control measures across Canada and argued that the stock of community housing in the country fails to meet the growing need. McKechnie went a step further to suggest that housing should be considered an essential right – not a commodity to be bought and sold at all.
Moving the discussion from housing to the challenges of those working under precarious employment, McKechnie reiterated that even before the pandemic, workers in the gig economy had been fighting for their collective rights against powerful interests. He noted that the onus used to be on companies to prove that each individual worker classified as an independent contractor was, in fact, economically separate from the company, but that rulings in the past few years have allowed companies to misclassify gig workers en masse. Even simply returning to the previous arrangement, McKechnie says, would allow gig workers to organize and collectively advocate for adequate rights and protections.
McKechnie went a step further to suggest that housing should be considered an essential right – not a commodity to be bought and sold at all.
Dhunna noted that a People’s Bailout is necessary to ensure that the recovery is comprehensive and just – moving money to the people affected by the crisis, rather than to corporations. She noted several specific policy needs: guaranteed housing for all and rent control; retuning land to Indigenous peoples; nationalization of extractive industries to help wind down the fossil fuel industry; labour reforms to allow collective bargaining for gig workers, increase the minimum wage, and extend job benefits like paid sick leave; releasing incarcerated people from prisons; and closing corporate tax loopholes and introducing a tax on excess profits. Gray-Donald noted that Resource Movement has been advocating for wealth and inheritance taxes on the ultra-wealthy (those in the top 10 per cent) – a policy which has the potential to raise several billions of dollars in the next few years, which could be used to fund some of the programs the panellists called for.
Who is working to make these demands a reality?
The meeting wrapped up with an open discussion addressing questions from the audience. Several in attendance wanted to know more about how the panellists’ proposed policies could be implemented: Could the government actually reign in those who are profiting as millions suffer, or are these companies just too powerful to regulate?
Tranjan argued that one of the lessons we’ve learned from the pandemic is that the government is capable of effecting drastic and immediate change – evidenced by how swiftly they were able to allocate nearly $100 billion to spending and deferred payment programs and force businesses across the country to close their doors. Harnessing this same power to implement rent control, build affordable housing, provide free internet, and change labour laws should, it was agreed, be just as achievable.
The panellists were equally unanimous in asserting that the way to get these reforms passed is to put pressure on officials and change the public perception of what governments should and can be doing to help those in need. These are best done through grassroots organizing, including actions one can do from home: emailing representatives; participating in phone actions to companies like Bell or Rogers; signing online petitions like ACORN’S Internet for All campaign, the 15 & Fairness labour reform campaign, or Resource Movement’s Wealth and Inheritance Taxes petition; and distributing resources to the people who need them, like through the Share My Cheque pledge and the Foodsters United Hardship Fund.
Harnessing this same power to implement rent control, build affordable housing, provide free internet, and change labour laws should, it was agreed, be just as achievable.
Running a few minutes into overtime, the webinar concluded with impassioned calls from the panellists for all of us to organize within our communities. While Fayaz noted that “we have to organize the people themselves […] the people affected by this,” Phillips added that “we need people with resources to fund these organizing efforts.” Indeed, most of Resource Movements’ members and many in attendance not only have wealth and savings that allow them to cover their basic needs, but many are still drawing large salaries and making money on investments during the pandemic. “Everyone has things they can contribute,” as Dhunna put it. “None of it is wrong, as long as you are aware of your social situation and willing to give your time and energy.”
McKechnie pointed out that people are more engaged when they participate in social movements in a way that feels personally relevant to them – but that being shielded from the experiences of those placed in vulnerable situations doesn’t excuse their inaction. He explained that the experience of wealthy people – before and during the pandemic – is one he simply cannot relate to. “I’ve spent my whole life losing, getting my ass kicked by capitalism,” he explained. “I lost things over and over and over.” For those in audience with privilege, McKechnie compelled them to think about what they have and what they’re willing to give for a more just world.
McKechnie laid out the framework for this critical engagement: “We start within our community’s workplaces, religious communities, queer communities, diaspora communities . […] We think that people are won over with logic and facts, more often they are won over by trust building relationships. We’re talking about going to the people who trust you already and telling them things that make them uncomfortable and start a conversation that might not be pleasant. […] I need you to be in the spaces that you’re in, actively engage, really moving us toward that. People have the power.”
To learn more about of the campaigns and organizations advocating for the policies raised here, see this partial list: