Strategic investments must be government’s priority

May 25, 2020

As published in the Winnipeg Free Press

THE COVID-19 pandemic is having severe and unprecedented impacts on people, jobs and the economy.

In the interest of public health, entire sectors of our economy have been closed or dramatically scaled-back, and we face the worst unemployment crisis since the Great Depression. In Manitoba, tens of thousands of workers have lost their jobs and seen their hours cut back, as families struggle with rising household debt and poverty.

Canada’s public health-care system, supported by dedicated health-care professionals, has been there for us throughout the pandemic. But there are alarming cracks, including inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), staffing shortages and serious concerns about the state of long-term seniors’ care.

In Manitoba, workers in health care and the provincial public sector have worked for years under expired contracts and frozen wages, dictated by the Pallister government.

Early progress in flattening the curve means some businesses are planning for how they might reopen, but conditions will not be “back to normal” anytime soon. With reduced incomes and public-health concerns lingering, consumer and investor confidence will likely remain flat for some time.

So far, Premier Brian Pallister has responded to the economic crisis with cuts and austerity — an approach widely criticized by economists and other experts from across the political spectrum. Laying off thousands of public-sector workers would weaken public services that families are relying on and prolong the recession by cutting incomes and purchasing power further, adding to the downward spiral.

The greatest economic risk we face is not public debt, but sustained economic misery of prolonged unemployment, weak investment and consumer demand, and a double- or even multi-dip recession.

Government must lead our recovery through forward-looking plans to protect our economic future, with the overriding goal of maintaining employment and getting thousands of Manitobans back to work in fairly paid, family-supporting jobs.

When consumer and business spending are at their lowest, we need major public investments to counter the recession and create an environment for the private sector to rebound.

With long-term interest rates at exceptionally low levels, now is the time to plan for ambitious public investments to build a better, fairer Manitoba. Our public debt burden will be far worse without a strong economy, rising incomes and increased government revenues.

We rely on public services even more during times like these. They meet important needs and provide a floor to support our most vulnerable. The pandemic has revealed concerning gaps that must be addressed in our social safety net. We need to increase investments in public services and ensure we care for all members of our society.

We also need strategic investments in roads, schools, hospitals, flood protection, colleges and universities, child-care centres, public housing, hydro, public transit and building retrofits to kick-start the economy, create jobs and support Manitobans to return to work.

Workplace health and safety must be prioritized, with government setting the proper tone through prevention programs and inspections. Workers need proper PPE and training and easy-to-access workers’ compensation coverage, as well as paid sick leave so they aren’t forced to choose between staying home and keeping a paycheque.

Women in the workforce have experienced the majority of job losses as a result of their over-representation in sectors especially hard hit by the pandemic, and our recovery plan will need to ensure they have opportunities to rejoin the labour market and obtain better-paying and more secure employment in the future.

To enable parents, especially women, to return to work while ensuring safe and enriching care for their children, we must rebuild a child-care system that is universally accessible and affordable. This will require greater public investment to stabilize and adequately fund centres, open up more spaces and retain skilled, fairly compensated staff.

The pandemic has highlighted how we all benefit from the hard work of thousands of Manitobans in low-wage sectors, such as grocery store workers, early-childhood educators, cleaners, those who work with vulnerable Manitobans, and many others earning minimum wage or just above it. Our minimum wage should no longer leave its earners living in poverty, even with full-time work. All workers deserve a living wage that helps them make ends meet.

We will need a truly “all-hands-on deck” plan if we want to get Manitoba back to work. The Pallister government needs to reverse course on cuts and invest instead in helping our economy to recover by laying the foundation for good, family-supporting jobs in the private and public sectors.

Kevin Rebeck is president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour.