By Ian Robb |Nov. 18, 2020
The prime minister has indicated relief is coming for sectors that have been hardest hit by COVID-19, like air transportation, hospitality, and tourism. First in line may be airline bailouts and a broader aviation relief package.
To this end, Transport Minister Marc Garneau recently announced that there will be no bailout if airlines don’t refund travel tickets. It was good retail politics and a great offering of help for dissatisfied customers, but where are his conditions to help workers in the sector?
Again, and again we have seen this government fail to take action to support workers facing long-term dislocation because of the COVID-19 pandemic and are worried about having jobs to go back to. The federal government appears to be leaving the doors wide open for large companies to ditch their workers while collecting big government bailouts. And it’s wrong.
Sectoral support must come with conditions that keep workers tied to their jobs instead of doling out cash and hoping for the best, while workers prepare for the worst. Support also needs to be transparent, so people know how much money is flowing to companies and how they are spending it.
We have seen this story play out too many times before. Huge government bailouts ending up in executive bonuses while workers, who are at the heart of any economic recovery, are left out. CEWS was pitched as a solution to keep workers attached to their jobs, but airlines have dropped workers from CEWS, while airline catering contractors and airport concessionaires are not using it at all.
As we manage through the crisis, Canada must prioritize clear worker retention measures to make sure our recovery includes the people who drive our economy — the workers. Sadly, in too many situations we are not seeing this. The Canadian airline industry is a case in point.
We have seen airlines refuse to refund tickets, drop domestic and international routes, lay off workers and are threatening to lay off more. West Jet laid off workers and even replaced some of them by contracting out their jobs. The airlines’ approach to managing this crisis and relations with the government is evolving into something more closely resembling an economic hostage situation than a negotiation.
The Canadian Airports Council (CAC), which represents airport authorities across the country, has been quick to shift focus away from the impact on not only direct staff but the army of indirect contracted staff that are essential to the functioning of an airport, like airport concession workers.
One of the top asks on the part of CAC is to extend rent relief for the foreseeable future. Rent payments are generated by concessions and aviation revenue. Understandably, revenues are way down, but the CAC is calling for rent relief for three to five years. Eliminating ground rents to Ottawa has long been a goal of the Council. What, in return, will Ottawa demand of airport authorities to retain workers’ jobs?
One non-economic solution is to condition relief on worker retention measures that will preserve jobs of direct and contracted airport workers. Similar measures have been adopted by airports across the U.S. and could go a long way to providing laid-off airport workers a pathway back to their jobs.
Sectoral relief should be conditioned on preserving and retaining the jobs of those direct employees and contracted workers who are critical to any airport, so they can return to their jobs when travel does eventually rebound. The average contracted food concession worker, many of whom are low-wage, immigrant workers, predominantly women, will be struggling to pay their rents as well and they should have the support of our government.
Other countries have added conditions to bailouts, including the United States that required job protection as a part of CARES Act funding for airlines. There were also restrictions placed on executive pay, share buybacks, and the issuance of dividends as well as minimum service and route protection. Canada must do more, because if they fail to support workers now, the long-term consequences will be severe.
Prime Minister Trudeau has committed to keeping workers attached to their jobs through the COVID-19 response and recovery, but we need to see the government putting these words into action when it comes to our hardest hit sectors.
The airline and aviation sector will eventually recover. The question is whether future government support will include the sector’s workers or leave them behind. We believe it’s time to put workers front and centre.
Ian Robb is the Canadian director of UNITE HERE Canada, which represents over 18,000 workers in the aviation, hospitality, and tourism sectors.