Tough times, struggles ahead for British Columbians in 2021

Most British Columbians were glad to say goodbye to 2020, a year of deep economic crisis and worsening pandemic impacts. But the coming year will see more difficulties for the working class of BC, and sharp challenges for the NDP government which recently won a big majority.

For much of 2020, BC was widely envied for its low numbers of COVID cases and deaths. But that changed quickly last fall. By January, more than 60,000 cases had been recorded, along with over 360 deaths. The desperate efforts by geographically isolated First Nations to keep out the virus are now being overwhelmed, and there is a big spike in outbreaks within the school system. The province’s attempts to limit deadly outbreaks in seniors’ and long-term care facilities, by limiting employees to just one workplace, fell short. As in other jurisdictions, vaccinations are proceeding, but still too slowly to reduce overall numbers.

A new campaign by the BC Federation of Labour, “Working Sick Isn’t Working”, argues that despite public health recommendations, workers who get sick often still go to work because they can’t afford to lose pay and might even get fired for staying home.

Aimed at both the Horgan NDP and the federal Liberals, the campaign calls for every worker – full-time, part-time, temporary or casual – to be covered by a plan including COVID-19 sick leave of at least 10 days during the pandemic; a permanent paid sick leave guarantee; and support for new and struggling businesses that have lost income because of the pandemic, to cover up to 75 percent of sick leave costs.

Meanwhile, the province is seeing a tidal wave of bankruptcies and business closures. Minister of Finance Selina Robinson says BC’s economy may not bounce back fully until early 2023, after a 6.2 percent decline in GDP last year. The province expects a 2020 deficit of $13.6 billion, including $2 billion on extra financial supports during the pandemic.

Retail sales have returned to pre-pandemic levels and housing sales have rebounded, but some key sectors – including transportation, accommodation and food services, information and culture – are still in bad shape. A stunning 400,000 jobs were lost in March and April 2020, hitting young people and women the hardest. About 360,000 jobs were regained by November, but these were largely part-time or temporary. BC’s unemployment rate is projected to average 9.3 percent in 2021 and currently sits at 14.1 percent for people aged 15-24. Thousands of low-income tenants face uncertain futures, with no guarantee of being able to pay the rent and buy groceries.

The NDP minority government, elected in 2017 and backed by the Greens, implemented some measures to tackle poverty and insecurity. But as the First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition reported last month, by the end of 2018, 159,570 children and youth were still living in poor households, down slightly from 2017 (163,730), and BC’s child poverty rate of 18.5 percent was slightly higher than the pan-Canadian rate of 18.2 percent. BC has a long way to go to tackle this massive problem.

But the government sparked widespread anger in December by slashing its $300 COVID-19 benefits for disability and income assistance recipients to $150. Horgan and Robinson promised to boost the rates in their upcoming budget which has been delayed to April 20.

The demands raised by First Call go further, including to index the BC Child Opportunity Benefit to the annual inflation rate; to prioritize childcare investments in the 2021 budget and beyond; to tie rent control to the unit, so that landlords have no incentive to evict current tenants; to ensure that all workers in BC are covered by the hourly minimum wage and have a legislated right to paid sick leave; and to raise income and disability assistance rates.

As budget planning grinds forward, there still seems to be cash in the treasury to help resource extraction and export corporations. Construction of the Site C dam in northern BC is going full speed ahead, for example. The dam will provide energy for the liquid natural gas industry, which itself faces huge uncertainties due to wildly fluctuating global energy prices.

A new report on the status of Site C is now being considered by the Horgan cabinet. The report by former deputy finance minister Peter Milburn examines construction delays, rising costs and risks due to geotechnical issues. The former Liberal government claimed Site C would cost $6.6 billion, and the NDP backed the project after coming to office. The cost estimates topped $10.7 billion by last year, and the independent BC Utilities Commission puts that figure at more than $12 billion. Like the Muskrat Falls fiasco in Labrador, Site C is turning into a bottomless money pit. But Premier Horgan seems reluctant to disappoint the energy monopolies or the building trades which campaigned for his party by cancelling the dam.

As 2021 begins, the Communist Party’s BC Committee is gearing up for a campaign to raise income and disability assistance rates to at least $2,000 per month and a 30 percent boost in the minimum wage, up to $20 per hour. The campaign will include leaflets, posters and a strong social media component, including online videos and forums.

[Photo: BC Federation of Labour “A Future for All” campaign]

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