COVID-19 wreaked havoc on Canada’s economy. On a quarterly basis, and despite a slow recovery, economic activity continues to lag pre-pandemic levels. Industrial sectors did not experience the decline, or rebound, evenly. Some industries saw increased activity while others remain at a standstill. Many workers in hospitality, air transportation and tourism, still do not know if or when they will go back to work. The emerging fourth wave poses additional threats that leave workers and families questioning their employment and their security. Government must continue providing worker, business and social supports to drive an economic recovery that is fair, inclusive and sustainable.
The benefits of economic recovery must be spread equally across households in Canada. Turning this vision into reality requires government to focus on creating and sustaining good, safe jobs. It also means providing continued support to those unable to work because of public health restrictions or other circumstances. Targeted support, and industry-wide strategies, for the hardest hit sectors including hospitality, air transportation and tourism are essential. Despite persistent fear mongering by conservative economists, in a frenzy over deficits, government has the tools at its disposal to grow the economy, implement tax fairness and refuse to repeat the cuts that plagued Canada’s last economic crisis, mismanaged by the Harper Conservatives.
The pandemic highlighted many fault lines within Canada’s economy. Government has the opportunity to fix them and reorient the economy towards fairness, equity and resilience.
Unifor recommends the federal government:
- Extend the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, Canada Recovery Benefit, Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit and other COVID-19 income support programs through Canada’s fourth wave of COVID-19;
- Reform the tax system by implementing a wealth tax, closing tax loopholes, and clamping down on tax havens;
- Invest in a nation-wide, Travel Canada tourism initiative to promote economic recovery in the tourism sector including hospitality, gaming and transportation;
- Ensure foreign-based online streaming firms contribute to Canadian content in media, and that digital platforms like Facebook and Google pay for news content created by Canadian news outlets; and
- Continue to choose running deficits instead of cutting public services in search of a balanced budget.
- Between March and October 2020, 8.9 million people in Canada benefitted from special emergency income benefits, including CERB, provided by the federal government.
- Canada’s billionaires saw their wealth increase by $78 billion in the first year of the pandemic, but low income Canadians are left struggling.
- There are 150,000 fewer people working in hospitality than before the pandemic.
- By June 2021, the air transportation industry had recovered only 10% of its pandemic contraction.
- Canada’s pandemic deficits of $300 billion (2020) and $150 billion (2021) prevented the crisis from spiralling out of control and will help speed up the recovery.
COVID-19 led to the most significant economic downturn in 100 years. After contracting by 11.3% in the second quarter of 2020, Canada’s economy rebounded dramatically. Despite positive trends, economic activity still lags pre-pandemic levels. The economy is improving, but hardly in a strong state.
Notably, workers experienced this downturn in different ways. Some saw little change in their day-to-day routines. Many transitioned away from offices and into homes. However, others – many union members – bore the brunt. Those on the frontlines put themselves at risk to care for people and make sure others had access to food, internet and other essential goods and services. On the other hand, millions lost jobs.
Canada’s tourism sector, including transportation, gaming and hospitality, continue to be among the hardest hit. In the air transportation sector, for example, economic activity is still 80% below pre-pandemic levels. As vaccination levels rise, and hundreds of thousands of workers slowly return to some semblance of normalcy, it is important that government not forget that the economy is recovering, not fully healed.
The federal government stepped up to the plate and delivered for workers in this pandemic. Investments in income supports along with wage and rent subsidies, prevented a catastrophic economic collapse. These needed programs cost hundreds of billions of dollars but managed to stabilize millions of people as well as countless businesses, helping them weather this unprecedented storm. Despite this spending, Canada’s financial house is in order. Bond ratings are high, and interest rates low. Canada can handle these extra costs. Without them, the economy would have sunk. In time, economic growth – not spending cuts – will see the debt level shrink.
As the fourth wave of the pandemic gains steam, it is clear that unemployment will persist. Neither the final stages of the recovery nor the last stages of the pandemic will be smooth. Government has an important role to play in mitigating the consequences.
After the 2008-09 economic crisis, the International Monetary Fund found that it was government spending – not cuts – that sped up economic recovery. It is also clear that, at the time, Canada’s conservative government pulled back public supports far too quickly, fearing deficits. As a result, Canada’s workers took much longer to recover than Bay Street – government should have done more then and can refuse to repeat that mistake now.
Even when Canada fully recovers economically, the country must build back better than before. Numerous crises raged prior to the pandemic including income inequality, precarious work and climate change. The next federal government must actively deal with these crises by mobilizing resources and guiding spending to create the industrial policies, the infrastructure and the social programs needed for a modern, inclusive 21st century economy.