A society that respects human rights must ensure that all its members have an adequate livable income and opportunity to participate in meaningful and productive work. We need a 21st century system of social protection that is a life enhancing approach, offering Canadians and Ontarians genuine opportunities to reach their potential and achieve their goals as well as to make successful life transitions. These turbulent times have given AWH an opportunity to reflect and one thing is certain; we do not want to go back to the old normal. Nowis the time to reimagine the social, economic, and ecological environment in which we want to live. Now is the time for a vision that will transform our policies, programs, and institutions so that all members of the community live with dignity.
Early Learning and Childcare
The gaps and diminished capacities of our systems of social and health protection have been revealed by the shocking impacts of the COVID 19 pandemic. We are witness to the disproportionate effect of this pandemic on women, their families, and their children. As our country and our province lay the groundwork for an economic and social recovery, we believe that foundational to this recovery is the development of a universal, quality, inclusive, and publicly funded childcare system.
Ontario has now signed to the federal-provincial agreement for child care. Within this framework, provinces and local communities have the opportunity to design programs that address their uniqueness and specific needs. One size does not fit all geographies.
While we are pleased that this agreement has been signed, there are still major concerns. Without caregivers there is no child care. It is necessary to address the chronic working conditions that are leading to the exodus of staff, to increase the salaries and benefits of caregivers in licensed facilities. It is necessary to protect the staff with paid sick leave. It is necessary to develop plans that work for all parents in all locations.
Universal, quality, inclusive, publicly funded childcare system is the most effective path to gender equality, economic prosperity, and children’s development. Many Ontarians agree. Childcare is an important and critical election issue.
Paid Sick Days
The recent report, Before it’s Too Late: How to Close the Paid Sick Day Gap During COVID-19 and Beyond, from the Decent Work and the Health Network points out that Canada falls in the bottom quarter of countries globally that do not guarantee paid sick leave on the first day of illness. The situation in Ontario is the same. The COVID pandemic has made it evident that paid sick leave provisions are essential to protect the health of individual workers, their workplaces, and the broader community. Workers require a minimum of 10 permanent, job-protected, employer paid sick days annually and this should be raised to 14 days during a public health outbreak,
Consensus on the need for paid sick days is broad and loud and fierce. Workers and organizers have been joined by top public health officers, municipal governments, some chambers of commerce, opposition politicians, unions, faith groups, and grass roots community organizations. All agree that paid sick days save lives and keep Ontario’s critical resource of workers healthy and on the job which, in turn, protects our communities – hospitals, schools, businesses and the families that need and use these critical resources.
Some employers provide paid sick leave to their employees, through collective agreements, company benefit policies, or otherwise, commonly in the form of several paid days followed by the provision of short-term illness or disability insurance benefits. However, workers without paid sick leave – a majority of workers – particularly low-wage, precariously employed essential workers who are disproportionately women, Black, Indigenous, and racialized, experience financial pressure to work even when ill. If they do not work, they face an immediate loss of much needed income, but also the tenuousness of their employment status frequently means that taking time off work could jeopardize their standing with their employer or future earnings, through either a cut in their hours or job loss.
A poll commissioned by the Ontario Federation of Labour and conducted by Environics Research from November 17 to 29, 2021 showed overwhelming support for paid sick time. Eighty percent of Ontarians surveyed support a call for at least 10 days of permanent paid sick leave, paid for by employers in Ontario, and 85 per cent agree that businesses have a responsibility to provide paid sick days to their employees to ensure workers are not faced with the choice of working sick or losing pay. Seventy-seven per cent of respondents agree that Ontario’s sick leave program should cover part-time and casual workers.
All workers should have the protection of paid sick days. No Ontarian should have to make the choice between going to work sick or losing their livelihood. We require legislation that guarantees a minimum of 10 permanent, job-protected, employer-paid sick days per year for all workers, and this should be raised to 14 days during a public health outbreak.
Paid sick leave is one election issue.
Many other labour issues still need to be resolved and will be our focus in the future.
Income Security and Social Assistance Reform
Over the years people receiving support from social assistance programs have been systematically stereotyped and abused. Beginning in Elizabethan England, the Poor Laws created a social divide between those who paid taxes and the impoverished, who needed support.
Since then, recipients of public support have been stereotyped as ‘outsiders’ . unwilling to work, lazy, alcoholics or addicts. There have been debates about deserving versus undeserving poor, real or feigned disabilities. It has been said social assistance support would discourage participation in the labour force.
Social Assistance in Ontario currently takes the form of Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), both implemented in 1998. Both programs are deliberately coercive and punitive.
The Income Security Advocacy Centre provides updates on the income benefit received. The most recent information, as of July 2021:
*a single individual on OW will receive $733 per month; a single parent with a child will receive $1,124.83; a couple will receive $1,136.
*a single individual living on ODSP will receive $1,169; a single parent with a child will receive $1,718.83; and a couple will receive $1,750.
These monthly amounts are well below any designated poverty measures.
Transformational Reform of Social Assistance
Over the years commissions, major studies and consultations on social assistance have been conducted and reforms have been recommended, but none has led to the transformation of social assistance.
A 21st century system of social assistance must be designed to embrace the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Any system of social protection must respect the rights of individuals as guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“Recovery and Renewal: Ontario’s Vision for Social Assistance Transformation,” the document detailingthe Province of Ontario’s unfolding changes to social assistance, was announced in 2021. The changes being implemented have not been openly shared, vetted, or debated by those with lived experience, or those working in community-based no-profit social service agencies, and experts in the field. The government cancelled basic income pilot projects that demonstrated the value of meeting basic needs as a steppingstone to social and economic integration. The current social assistance reform effort of the Government of Ontario negates once again the transformation of social assistance into a program that enables individuals to live with dignity:
- It does not provide a benefit support that reflects the cost of living.
- It does not restore meaningful financial support to the municipalities and non-profit sector that provide life-stabilization supports.
- It separates life-stabilization supports from employment services which have been privatized and outsourced. This practice has been shown to have short-term, ineffective goals by forcing people into a cycle of gig jobs, unemployment, and again social assistance.
- It changes and realigns Ontario’s definition of disability to more closely reflect that of the federal government—this redefinition has not grown out of a consultation with the disability movement or health understandings reflective of our times. The criteria to determine disability has not been shared and as people are assessed and designated as having a disability, it is unclear if this provides a guarantee that with those disabilities will have access to accommodating workplaces and food security. The redefinition of disability may force many onto OW, a tax saving practice.
Income Security: Social Assistance Transformation: What is Needed Now.
A new system of social assistance is needed that recognizes that all members of the community have a human right to income support to meet their basic needs. Immediate action is needed on the following:
- Government, community, and those with lived experience must come together to design and implement a new system of social assistance, building on the existing research, deliberations, and recommendations of the respective reports and commissions.
- Benefit rates, determined by an evidence-based assessment of the cost of living, must provide recipients of OW and ODSP with the means to meet their basic needs for shelter, food, clothing, education, and health care.
- The special needs of people living with disabilities must be adequately supported. The individual and specific needs of people living with disabilities are complex and cover a range of supports such as special foods, guide dogs, assistive devices, hearing aids, mobility devices, vision care, diabetic supplies, surgical supplies, incontinence supplies, medical transportation etc.
- Housing provision must be treated separately from all other living costs and based on average community housing costs.
- Social protection should begin to integrate social assistance into a basic living income (mirroring the CERB – Canada Emergency Response Benefit- experience during the COVID pandemic).
- Social protection must assure access to an income floor that can support transitions to employment. A Jobs Guarantee program would provide the best chance for those struggling with mental health or addictions, who need some accommodation and support, or who are transitioning and need to learn new skills.