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Column: Reimagining work – we can do better

As we relaunch, we have a chance to put this right. We have a chance to reimagine what work looks like in the Bow Valley and build something better.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a great revealer. 

While creating new challenges, it is also shining a light on those problems in our society that we have chosen to ignore. The pandemic has opened our eyes to the plight of seniors in long-term care, inadequate housing on reserves, and crowded shelters for the homeless.

As a result of the pandemic, we now see and appreciate the essential workers in our community – grocery clerks ensuring we can access food, cleaners keeping our facilities virus-free and health-care aides caring for our seniors. The pandemic has also made us see all too plainly how we have undervalued our essential workers.

We ask frontline workers to work for low wages in physically-demanding jobs and under conditions that put their health and the health of their families at risk. The pandemic has highlighted the need for fair payment for essential frontline work and the importance of providing safe working conditions. 

Paid a living wage, health care aides would not go from job to job in senior care facilities carrying the lethal virus with them. Given safe working conditions, or at least proper attention when they sounded the alarm, meat packers in High River would not have suffered the largest COVID-19 outbreak in North America. 

We in the Bow Valley have largely been spared the ravages of coronavirus infection with four cases in Banff and 18 cases in Canmore and area as of May 15, 2020. While many parts of the province are seeing a decline in COVID-19 cases, the real danger to Bow Valley communities is just beginning. 

The economic relaunch means large numbers of visitors could flood in, bringing with them the risk of infection. Being in close proximity to Calgary, the largest reservoir of coronavirus in the province, we need to be vigilant and prudent in reopening our economy. 

We have frontline workers in the hospitality industry who are about to be exposed to new risks. They deserve fair treatment and safe working conditions like essential frontline workers. 

A 2018 study showed that hotel workers in the Bow Valley suffered a 48 per cent higher rate of physical injuries requiring time off work, or modified duties, than hotel workers in the rest of Alberta. Bow Valley hospitality workers suffer from mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and substance abuse. They face social challenges including isolation, workplace discrimination and lack of social support.

As we relaunch, we have a chance to put this right. We have a chance to reimagine what work looks like in the Bow Valley and build something better. 

Let us begin by acknowledging how hard our frontline workers labour and the risks they take. Let us pay them a decent wage that allows them to thrive in our communities. Let us provide them with safe working environments and give them voice and agency in addressing safety concerns in the workplace. Let us treat our workers with respect and without discrimination.

Let us build an economy that lives within its means – an economy that recognizes the boundaries imposed by labour, housing, infrastructure and environmental considerations in the Bow Valley. To sustain our communities, we do not need to create an economy that looms larger than necessary and thrives on the exploitation of people and nature. 

As we rebuild our economy, we can focus on making it better, not bigger. If you agree that we are all in this together, now is the time to show that you mean it.

Vamini Selvanandan is a family physician and public health practitioner in Banff, Alberta. She currently serves on the board of directors of the Canadian Public Health Association and is past chair of the Bow Valley Primary Care Network.