Opinion: To address the needs of Canadians during the COVID-19 crisis, we need a targeted basic income

Dionne Pohler, et al.: Few of the policies announced last Wednesday by the Canadian government directly deal with the obvious issue of lost wages that immediately affects unemployed workers

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak to the media during a news conference about the COVID-19 virus outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Wednesday March 18, 2020.Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the world how interconnected we all are, and how much we depend on each other. In Canada, it has been heart-warming to see the responses of people who are working together to protect the elderly and other vulnerable members of our communities. The situation has also highlighted that Canadians still place a lot of faith in our government and institutions, and that we are willing to act quickly and collectively to ensure that our health-care system does not become overwhelmed.

However, as borders shut down, provinces declare states of emergency and businesses close, attention has rightly turned to the impact this will have on the economy. Focusing on the economy is important, as the broad social consensus previously outlined is at risk of fracturing if the government does not develop a comprehensive plan to address the real and growing concerns of Canadians who are worried about putting food on the table and paying their bills.

Policy options abound, such as low- or zero-interest business loans, tax payment deferrals, payroll tax holidays, expanded access to employment insurance (EI), boosting the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) and GST rebates, and plans to ensure bank liquidity, along with various stimulus spending proposals. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump recently announced plans to implement several of these options.

But while some of these policies may be necessary, they are unlikely to ensure continued social solidarity, compliance with public health measures or help arrest the looming cascade of debt defaults and the resulting stress on the financial system that will only make things worse.

President Donald Trump speaks during a press briefing with the coronavirus task force, at the White House, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Washington. Evan Vucci/AP

With the exception of expansions to EI, none of the policies announced Wednesday by the Canadian government directly deals with the obvious issue of lost wages that immediately affects unemployed workers. And, because they by and large do not target the people who need the help most, they fail to act as a necessary economic stabilizer or build trust and legitimacy among the broader public. They will not work as a means of maintaining economic activity, and perhaps more crucially, they will not secure the ongoing co-operation necessary to achieve the government’s public health goals. Workers who are left behind are not likely to quietly suffer and comply.

On both an individual and collective level, Canadians are acting quickly to protect the most vulnerable during this pandemic. They would be similarly supportive of policy proposals focused on helping the most vulnerable. A targeted income maintenance approach that is conditional on income — what we refer to as a “targeted basic income” — meets the urgency of the current crisis. And, because seniors and children already have a guaranteed annual income through the Old Age Security, Guaranteed Income Supplement and CCB programs, the major remaining gap in social policy must address the needs of low-income working-age people — particularly those without children.

Working-age people who rely on employment and self-employment as their primary source of income will be most affected by widespread business closures. Working-age people who fall in the lower end of the income distribution will also be the most severely impacted, as they will qualify for lower EI benefits and are more likely to turn to social assistance in the near future due to having lower savings. With many low-income Canadians stretched by big debt loads, neither EI nor provincial social assistance benefits are likely to be enough. Moreover, asking people to apply for these benefits in the middle of a crisis — when many cannot work because of illness, quarantine or business shutdowns — is unnecessary.

For this reason, we propose that the federal government immediately implement the provision of a monthly income of $1,000 to all individual working-age Canadians (ages 18-64) who had employment or self-employment income in 2019 between $1 and $50,000. The proposed amount of $1,000 a month is slightly higher than the average monthly social assistance provided to single working-age people in each province across the country.

According to our calculations, the gross cost of this policy option is approximately $11.6 billion per month. We assume that provincial social assistance programs remain unchanged. If students are excluded, the cost decreases by about $1.4 billion. Including an additional cut-off based on total household income would more effectively target low-income families, and further reduce the cost. Given the current situation, no claw-back rate should be applied, either now, or next year at tax time. The Canada Revenue Agency could directly administer this targeted basic income, and no application would be needed.

A related policy option that addresses many of the same concerns as the targeted basic income is the universal basic income (UBI). Because people are desperately searching for creative and effective policy solutions, the idea of an emergency (short-term) UBI has attracted support from all sides of the ideological spectrum. In both Canada and the United States, the idea has received support from both progressives and conservatives, and President Trump recently announced a direct cash transfer to all Americans.

When everyone gets the same amount of money from the government, it is clearly equal. However, just as not every Canadian is equally vulnerable to the virus, not every Canadian is equally vulnerable to the impact of the economic slowdown. A UBI is therefore a less equitable policy, even in the best of times. It is also much less efficient at helping the most vulnerable than a targeted income maintenance approach that is conditional on income.

A targeted basic income is a feasible, efficient and equitable option for addressing income precarity during this ongoing pandemic. It would provide a direct economic stimulus by putting money into the hands of the people who are most likely to spend it and, more importantly, into the hands of those who are most likely to need it. SOURCE

Greta Thunberg Says It’s ‘Extremely Likely’ That She Had Coronavirus

Credit…Virginia Mayo/Associated Press

Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish climate activist, announced on Tuesday that she and her father, Svante, had symptoms of Covid-19 and that while hers were mild, it was “extremely likely” that she had contracted the virus. She used the announcement to urge young people to stay at home, even if they don’t feel sick, to protect those who are more vulnerable.

“Many (especially young people) might not notice any symptoms at all, or very mild symptoms,” she said on Instagram, where she has 10 million followers. “Then they don’t know they have the virus and can pass it on to people in risk groups.”

“We who don’t belong to a risk group have an enormous responsibility, our actions can be the difference between life and death for many others,” she said.

Ms. Thunberg spoke to European Union lawmakers at a meeting in Brussels in early March. In an effort to protect her mother and her sister at home in Stockholm, Ms. Thunberg said she and her father, who accompanies her on her travels, had isolated themselves in a separate apartment.

She said she had felt “tired, had shivers, a sore throat and coughed.” Her father, she said, felt far worse and had a fever. Sweden offers Covid-19 tests only to those who need urgent medical care, she wrote, which meant that she was not tested.

Ms. Thunberg’s solo climate strikes helped fuel a global youth movement pressing world leaders to take action to slow down catastrophic climate change. For the last several weeks, the virus has compelled climate activists to take their protests off the streets and onto the internet.

On Tuesday, in her Instagram post, she urged young people to “follow the advice from experts and your local authorities and #StayAtHome to slow the spread of the virus.” SOURCE

What if the Virus is the Medicine?

 

The emerging pandemic is already a watershed of the early 21st century: things won’t ever be the same. Yet for all that the havoc that the virus is wreaking, directly and indirectly, it may also be part of the bitter medicine the global body needs.

How could adding another crisis to an already crisis-ridden planet possibly be medicinal?

Before we explore that question, we want to be clear: our intent is not to downplay the severity or minimize the importance of lives lost to this disease. Behind the mortality figures lie very real pain and grief, and these numbers, often discussed so casually, are personal, representing the potential loss of our parents, elders, teachers, dance companions, grandmothers or immune-compromised friends. Already, our hearts are breaking for the physical distance with our aging parents until we know if we’re infected. There’s not only a risk of losing beloveds in this time, but having to do so from afar. Our hearts are breaking for those who may die or suffer alone, without the touch of their loved ones. We honor death as a sacred passage, but we do not minimize death, suffering or sickness in the slightest. We pray that each one who transitions from this virus (as from the many other deadly diseases, accidents, overdoses, murders, suicides, mass shootings, and on and on) be met with on the other side by unexpected blessing, connection, peace.

Neither are the economic implications to be taken lightly. Many in this country have already seen massive impact, and the recession has only begun. As always, those closest to the edge will be hit hardest. For some, a month sequestered in beauty could be a vacation. Others have a few months before financial panic sets in. And for others living paycheck to paycheck or gig to gig, there is a great immediacy of struggle. The economic ‘side effects’ of this coronavirus could be catastrophic.

And yet.

For many in our world, the pre-coronavirus status quo was already catastrophic. Many are facing an imminent end to their world–indeed, for many species and many peoples, the world has already ended. We are in the midst of a crisis of unprecedented magnitude: the choice for humanity is change or die. No one said change would be easy. (Neither is dying.) And incremental change is not enough. It will take radical change to shift our current, calamitous trajectory away from massive environmental devastation, famine, energy crises, war & refugee crises, increasingly authoritarian regimes and escalating inequalities.

The world we know is dying. What is unsustainable cannot persist, by definition, and we are starting to see this play out.

What hope is there, then? There is the hope that breakdown will become, or coexist with, breakthrough. There is the hope that what is dying is the caterpillar of immature humanity in order that the metamorphosis yields a stunning emergence. That whatever survives this collective initiation process will be truer, more heart-connected, resilient and generative.

We are entering the chrysalis. There’s no instruction manual for what happens next. But we can learn some things from observing nature (thank you Megan Toben for some of this biological info). For one thing, the chrysalis stage is preceded by a feeding frenzy in which the caterpillar massively overconsumes (sound familiar? We’ve been there for decades). Then its tissues melt into a virtually undifferentiated goo. What remain separate are so-called imaginal cells, which link together and become the template from which the goo reorganizes itself into a butterfly. Does the caterpillar overconsume strategically, or out of blind instinct? Does it know what’s coming and trust in the process, or does it feel like it’s dying? We don’t know. It’s natural to resist radical, painful change. But ultimately there’s little choice but to surrender to it. We can practice welcoming the circumstances that force us away from dysfunctional old patterns, be they economic or personal. We have that opportunity now.

Let’s return to a crucial word, initiation. On an individual level, initiations are those processes or rituals by which one reaches a new state of being and corresponding social status: from girl to woman, from layperson to clergy, and so on. Initiations can be deliberate or spontaneous, as in the case of the archetypal shamanic initiation, which comes by way of a healing crisis. To paraphrase Michael Meade, initiations are events that pull us deeper into life than we would otherwise go. They vary widely from culture to culture and individual to individual, but two characteristics they share are intensity and transformation. They bring us face to face with life and with death; they always involve an element of dying or shedding so that the new can be born.

Most all of us have undergone initiations of one sort of another, from the death of a parent to the birth of a child. Many have experienced initiation in the form of a crisis or trial by fire. Those of us who have gone through more deliberate, ritualized forms of initiation can state unequivocally: the process is not fun, comfortable or predictable. You may well feel like you’re going nuts. You may not know who you are anymore. You don’t get to choose which parts of you die, or even to know ahead of time. One of the overriding feelings is of uncertainty: you don’t know where you’re going, only that there’s no going back. And there’s no way of knowing how long the transformation will take. It can help to remember that the initiatory chrysalis phase is a sacred time, set apart from normal life.That it has its own demands and its own logic. That it cannot be rushed, only surrendered to. That it may be painful, but also, ultimately, healing.

Imagine what happens when an entire society finds itself in the midst of a critical initiation. Except you don’t have to imagine: it’s already happening, or starting to. It looks like chaos, a meltdown. We’re in a moment of collective, global-level crisis and uncertainty that has little precedent in living memory. The economic machine–the source of our financial needs and also a system that profits from disease, divorce, crime and tragedy–is faced with a dramatic slow-down. We are all facing the cessation of non-essential activities. There is opportunity here, if we claim it.

This is a sacred time.

However, unlike a traditional rite of passage ceremony, there’s no priest or elder with wisdom born of experience holding the ritual container, tracking everything seen and unseen. Instead, all at once there are millions of personal quests inside one enormous initiatory chrysalis. And yet, look closely: amid the goo, you may start to notice imaginal cells appearing. Pockets of people who are aligned with something they may not fully understand, in receipt of a vision or pieces of one, beaming out their signal to say: let’s try something different.

This is an opportunity to loosen our grip on old and familiar ways. Those ways worked for as long as they did, and they got us here, for better and for worse. They seem unlikely to carry us much further. What if we’re instead being asked to feel our way forward, from the heart, without benefit of certainty–which, when concentrated, quickly becomes toxic? No one has all the answers in this or any other time. Right now the questions may be more valuable.

What if we honor this time with sacred respect?

What if we take the time to listen for the boundaries and limits of our Earth mother?

What is truly important?

How can we receive the bitter medicine of the moment deep into our cells and let it align us with latent possibility?

How can we, with the support of the unseen, serve as midwives to all that is dying here and all that is being born?

With these questions resounding, let us   s l o w d o w n and listen. For echo back from the unseen, for whisperings from the depths of our souls and from the heart of the mystery that–no less so in times of crisis–embraces us all. SOURCE

The Greed of the Oil Giants Is a Total Betrayal of the Future

The fossil industry could take important measures to mitigate climate change, but devotes itself to the opposite. The real scandal is the companies’ unwillingness to redirect new investments into renewable energy. It is a huge betrayal of the future — where the Murdoch press but, as well, some Swedish Media play along, writes Anders Wijkman.

When historians answer the question in the future which actors or factors were the biggest obstacles to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the 2000s, the candidates are many: the reluctance of accepting supranational decision-making by countries such as the US and China, the reluctance of political leaders such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro to cooperate internationally, the attempts of conventional economists such as William Nordhaus to downplay the risks, the disagreement between rich and poor countries about the responsibility for historical emissions or the constant attempts to disrupt the negotiations by oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia.

However, a special place must be reserved for the big oil, gas and coal companies for the disgraceful role they played and play. First, by obfuscating their own research data that at an early stage showed the risks of increasing carbon dioxide emissions. Then by investing hundreds of millions of dollars annually on lobbying in parliaments around the world, not least the US Congress, to torpedo or delay legislation aimed at limiting emissions.

The real scandal

The real scandal today is the companies’ unwillingness to diversify their operations and redirect new investments in energy production into renewable energy. Instead, companies continue to pump hundreds of billions of dollars into new oil and gas production. It is a huge betrayal of the future.

The coal companies are in a league of their own. The coal should stay in the ground and every newly opened coal mine — as in Australia recently — is a crime against the future. However, coal companies generally differ from oil and gas companies to the extent that their profit margins are small. Many coal companies have also gone bankrupt in recent years and the future of the industry is shaky in many countries.

The oil and gas producing companies, on the other hand, have so far had very good profitability. This means that companies such as BP, Shell, Chevron and Exxon Mobil invest tens of billions of dollars each year on new energy extraction. Of this, only an average of just over one percent currently end up in alternatives to oil and gas. In Exxon Mobil’s case, it is even smaller, in fact only 1/5 of this percentage, which is invested in renewable energy (the Carbon Disclosure Project). Instead, the money ends up being used to develop new oil and gas deposits. Still, we know that already the oil and gas fields that are under production in the world contain several times more oil and gas than can be used to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals. Further investments mean that the industry becomes even more firmly embedded in the fossil economy. The result can only be a disaster for the climate or that large parts of the investments become stranded (lost) assets.

The Greed of the Oil Giants Is a Total Betrayal of the Future, Below2C

What happened to “Beyond Petroleum”

But the managers who have succeeded him, among them the Swedish Carl-Henrik Svanberg, have primarily focused on continued extraction of oil and gas.

BP coined the term “Beyond Petroleum” twenty years ago. They then had a forward-thinking chief, Lord John Browne. But the managers who have succeeded him, among them the Swedish Carl-Henrik Svanberg, have primarily focused on continued extraction of oil and gas. I remember a statement from Svanberg a few years ago where he described it as BP would “go back to its roots”. BP did make a statement recently promising zero emissions from the company’s operations by 2050, but how to accomplish this remains yet unclear.

A few companies in the oil industry have taken small steps towards diversification, such as Total, Shell and Equinor, but their efforts outside the fossil market are still modest. However, Equinor — which has changed its name from Statoil to highlight a changed focus in its operations — has still a long way to go. Although the company has made good investments in offshore wind power, the commitment to oil and gas remains dominant.

The company is also a leader in the new oil field, Johan Sverdrup, which was inaugurated in mid-January. The field is said to contain reserves of 2.7 billion barrels of oil and is expected to generate a total revenue of at least $ 100 billion. Equinor’s management said in a statement “that Johan Sverdrup is good for Equinor’s shareholders, for Norway but also for climate emissions”. The latter claim is based on the fact that Equinor has electrified the oil recovery itself. It reduces emissions by a few percent. But the dominant emissions occur when the oil is used. An environmental representative in Norway pointed out: “Equinor’s statement is the same as a tobacco manufacturer that boasts that none of the company’s employees smoke while significantly increasing cigarette sales.”

Lundin Petroleum, a Swedish Oil Company, is also deeply involved in Norwegian waters. The company has recently decided to change its name to Lundin Energy. The motive is to show that the climate issue is taken seriously and that the company intends to invest in other energy sources than fossil energy. By 2030, they want to be climate neutral in their extraction of oil, mainly by adding green electricity to their oil platforms. But as for Equinor, the entirely dominant climate impact comes from the use of the oil.

In parallel, the big banks continue to pump money into various fossil projects. In total, close to $ 2,000 billion has been spent on new oil, gas and coal projects since the Paris Agreement was signed (Fossil fuel finance report card, 2019). JP Morgan Chase is, not surprisingly, at the top of the banks.

However, discussions are ongoing about the role of the financial industry in climate change. A growing number of banks and financial companies have gone out of coal, oil and gas. But still a large majority continue to support fossil companies and thus make the transition to a fossil-free energy system difficult.

One thing is clear

If companies such as BP, Shell, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Equinor, Aramco and others do not continue to invest heavily in new extraction, lending to the fossil extraction would be significantly lower. However, large investments are still being made by the oil-producing states.

To meet the Paris Agreement’s goals, global annual investments in renewable energy would at least need to triple

No one can demand that fossil companies stop selling oil and gas from one day to another. Most of the development in the world would stop. Nearly 80 percent of the world’s energy supply is still fossil fuels. However, given the seriousness of the situation, oil and gas companies need to take rapid steps to diversify their operations and aid the energy conversion. Companies such as BP, Exxon Mobil and Chevron are energy companies and should of course help develop alternative energy sources, just as the electricity companies have been forced to do.

To meet the Paris Agreement’s goals, annual global renewable energy investments would at least need to triple. If the oil and gas companies invested their investment funds in renewables instead of in oil and gas, they could in one go increase investments in solar, wind, geothermal energy and climate-smart bioenergy by close to 50 percent. It would give momentum to an industry that must soar if we are to have a chance to stop the heating below 2 degrees.

One can speculate as to why diversification has not come off. Comments from people in the industry mainly point to three reasons. On the one hand, companies are quite simply speculating that tough political measures will be delayed in most countries and that they can therefore look forward to a growing market many decades to come. Partly it is greed that governs. The profitability of selling oil and gas has been very high, which has led to good returns for shareholders and high salaries for people working in the companies. Profitability in the electricity sector has been significantly lower and thus less attractive. Finally, it is possible that the culture in the companies is not suitable for anything other than oil and gas. If true, these companies could refrain from operating solar and wind energy plants themselves and limit themselves to being part owners.

In addition, parts of the media, such as the Murdoch press and, in Sweden, the leader page in Svenska Dagbladet, have gone along

Another factor that comes into play is, of course, the forces that do their best to play down the importance of climate issues, such as the oil-producing countries and economists with William Nordhaus at the forefront. In addition, parts of the media, such as the Murdoch press and, in Sweden, the editorial page of Svenska Dagbladet, have gone along. The SvD has for many years been giving plenty of scope to Björn Lomborg, who repeatedly claims that sun and wind are still too expensive to invest in — a free pass to the oil and gas companies.

Sooner or later…

Oil and gas companies will be forced to rethink. Concerns about stranded assets are growing in the financial industry and a “tipping point”, when a majority of financial institutions ditches the fossil industry, need not be far away. At the same time, time is short.

The oil and gas companies could make important contributions to the transition, but devote themselves mostly to maintaining the status quo. Responsibility rests heavily on both those who own and those who run them. The situation is not getting any better because, according to an analysis of Influence Map, many of the companies continue to invest big money on political lobbying every year to delay tough measures against emissions. SOURCE

COVID-19 pandemic plan needed for Canada’s jails and prisons

According to a 2019 report from Statistics Canada, there are nearly 39,000 people in federal, provincial and territorial custody on any given day in Canada.

There are 50 per cent more adults in provincial, territorial jails in remand (14,812) than those prisoners in federally sentenced custody (9,543). In other words, the majority of prisoners have not been convicted of the crime(s) of which they have been accused. This same report shows that there are also more than 7,000 youth, ages 12-17, in custody or under community supervision.

Many jails in Canada are notorious for over-crowding, lack of cleanliness and a critical lack of access to healthcare and mental health services meaning they are some of the worst places to be during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We must also consider who is occupying Canada’s jails and prisons

We know from the statistics that Indigenous peoples are incarcerated at crisis-level rates that continue to increase every year. The alarm has been raised by the John Howard Society representing male prisoners; the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies representing female prisoners; human rights organizations, like Amnesty International; and Indigenous advocacy organizations.

They are not alone.

The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC), in Gladue (1999) and reaffirmed in Ipeelee (2012), acknowledged the “serious problem of aboriginal over representation in Canadian prisons” and gave specific directions to lower courts to consider alternatives to jail and prison for Indigenous peoples to address the “crisis.” Many Indigenous prisoners have been impacted by physical and or sexual abuse and or were from residential schools or the foster care system.

Yet, every year since those decisions were issued, Indigenous incarceration rates have skyrocketed.

The Office of the Correctional Investigator is the ombudsman for federal prisoners and their reports have raised the alarm in Indigenous over-incarceration for nearly two decades.

Ivan Zinger, the current Correctional Investigator, released statistics in January 2020 that shows the stark rise in Indigenous incarceration from 17 per cent in 2001 to over 30 per cent in 2020. The situation is even worse for Indigenous women who represent more than 42 per cent of those in federal prisons. Nearly half of all youth admitted into youth corrections are Indigenous.

Yet, Indigenous peoples only represent 5 per cent of the Canadian population. Provincial rates can be much worse. In Saskatchewan, 75 per cent of prisoners are Indigenous. Indigenous boys represent a whopping 92 per cent of youth corrections, while Indigenous girls represent 98 per cent. The rates in Manitoba are very similar.

Every successive federal and provincial government has failed to take substantive legislative and policy measures that would address the crisis. Now, their collective failures to act may well exacerbate the new crisis facing the country: the coronavirus pandemic.

We know from past pandemics that First Nations suffer higher infection and death rates. During H1N1, Indigenous peoples made up 28 per cent of hospital admissions during the first wave and 18 per cent of deaths despite only being 4 per cent of the population in 2009 – the majority being First Nations. In Winnipeg, Manitoba, 55 per cent of admissions to the Children’s Hospital were Indigenous people.

Multiple generations of assimilation, oppression, and dispossession  have resulted in severe socio-economic conditions higher rates of infectious and chronic diseases in Indigenous peoples. These poor health outcomes compromise Indigenous health and make them more vulnerable to disease. Tuberculosis is a highly infectious disease that has relatively low rates among the Canadian population, but First Nations suffer rates 40 times and Inuit 290 times that of southerners. These health conditions are all exacerbated in prisons where access to healthcare is lacking and where the virus has taken root.

A guard at Toronto South Detention Centre, one of the largest urban jails in Canada, has reportedly tested positive for the virus. An outbreak of the virus in Canadian jails or prisons puts the lives of prisoners at significant risk – especially Indigenous peoples.

There have already been calls by others for urgent decarceration strategies to prevent an outbreak in prisons. The union representing legal aid workers and staff in Saskatchewan has already asked governments to release low-risk, non-violent prisoners on the grounds that an outbreak would threaten the health and safety of prisoners, staff and local hospitals. Similarly, the League of Rights and Freedoms also called on Quebec government to reduce the prison population to avoid the virus spreading like “wildfire”.

Some steps have been taken in this direction

In Ontario, some low-risk prisoners are being released early to help stem the spread of the virus in the province’s jails.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s justice minister has also indicated that the province is considering temporary absences for prisoners during the pandemic, arguing that jails are “petri dishes for the spread of the virus” and that it could spread like a “crashing avalanche” if the government doesn’t act now. Even the United States, the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, has begun to release prisoners to stem the spread of COVID-19.

(The justice minister in Newfoundland and Labrador says it’s considering temporary absences for those in custody. APTN)

This would be in line with recommendations from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, who recommends alternatives to prison, including commuting sentences, early releases, probation and release into community care. However, the federal government has been relatively silent on their plans for federal prisons.

In response to Indigenous concerns about the pandemic, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller promised that no Indigenous community would be left behind and that the federal government would “address vulnerabilities” explaining that, “there is a need for special support and special care for Indigenous communities and Indigenous Canadians right across the country.” Yet, for all these promises, we have yet to see a plan to decarcerate Indigenous men, women and youth – especially those sitting in remand.

An Indigenous decarceration plan should have been developed as part of a federal-provincial-territorial-Indigenous government pandemic measure.

Decarceration is not about opening prison doors in the middle of a pandemic. It needs to be a planned approach that considers public health and safety, while not perpetuating systemic racism in the justice system or increasing health risks to Indigenous prisoners.

Given that Indigenous prisoners are more likely to be classified at higher risk levels due to systemic racism, any assessment of the risk level of prisoners to be released would have to be done in partnership with independent prison justice experts and Indigenous governments. Further, while some Indigenous prisoners have homes to return to, many will require social supports for themselves, their families and communities, on and off reserve.

Days matter in this pandemic. Urgent action is required right now. Will federal and provincial governments come together with Indigenous governments and develop a plan or will Indigenous men, women and youth in prisons be the community that is left behind during the pandemic? SOURCE

Siding with First Nation, N.S. judge overturns Alton Gas approval

Province and Sipekne’katik First Nation ordered to resume consultations for 120 days

Before Alton Gas can proceed with its proposed natural gas storage facility near the Shubenacadie River, the province must resume consultation with Sipekne’katik First Nation for 120 days. (Shawn Maloney)

  1. The Nova Scotia Supreme Court has ordered the province to resume consultations with Sipekne’katik First Nation over a controversial natural gas storage project on the banks of the Shubenacadie River.

Justice Frank Edwards released his decision Tuesday, writing that former Nova Scotia environment minister Margaret Miller was wrong when she concluded the province had adequately consulted with the First Nation about the project.

He ordered the parties to resume talks for 120 days, “or for such time as the parties mutually agree,” but gave some leniency on a start date because of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. The parties could wait until the province’s chief medical officer of health declares the crisis is over, or agree on an “alternative remote arrangement.”

Sipekne’katik had challenged in court Miller’s 2016 decision to grant industrial approval to Alton Gas, a subsidiary of Calgary-based energy company AltaGas, for a proposal to store up to 10 billion cubic feet of natural gas in underground caverns.

The Alton Gas project would create the caverns by using water from the Shubenacadie River to flush out nearby natural salt deposits.

Sipekne’katik had appealed the decision once before, and the judge found some procedural unfairness in the province’s process. But Miller later upheld her decision, leading to the latest appeal.

February hearing

Lawyers for the province, the band and Alton Gas made their arguments for the judicial review hearing in Nova Scotia Supreme Court at a two-day hearing in February.

The focus of the review was the Crown’s duty to consult with Indigenous peoples on matters that could affect their treaty and Aboriginal rights, as laid out in Canada’s Constitution Act.

Ray Larkin, the lawyer representing Sipekne’katik First Nation, told the court there was no “depth” to the province’s consultation with the band over the Alton Gas project.

Sean Foreman, the lawyer for the government, said the province upheld its duty to consult and any perceived failure was the result of an “uncooperative” approach from the band. He said the judicial review should be dismissed.

‘Palpable and overriding error’

Edwards ruled in favour of Sipekne’katik, reversing Miller’s 2019 decision to uphold her industrial approval.

At that time, Miller said consultation with the band had been sufficient.

“The Minister’s decision was not supported by the evidence,” Edwards wrote in his decision.

“While there had been extensive consultations regarding the potential environmental impacts of the Project, the core issue of Aboriginal title and treaty rights was never specifically engaged. The Minister therefore committed palpable and overriding error when she concluded that the level of consultation was appropriate.

“I also found that, but for her misapprehension of the evidence, the Minister would have concluded otherwise.”

Aboriginal title claim

Edwards wrote that Sipekne’katik’s treaty and Aboriginal title rights were “never specifically discussed” in earlier consultations.

Larkin argued at the hearing that Sipekne’katik has a legitimate Aboriginal title claim to the land and water that is proposed to be used for the Alton Gas project, which warrants “deep” consultation on the project.

In his decision, Edwards noted that deep consultation is not defined by case law and therefore varies by the circumstances. In this case, Edwards said, the strength of the asserted title claim would be an important factor.

“The Project is a significant industrial intrusion on an area the Band is claiming as its own. Massive amounts of salty brine will be pumped into the Shubenacadie River,” he wrote.

While studies and research indicate “minimal” environmental impacts, Edwards said, the full effects will remain unclear until the project is operational.

Edwards said it will be “vital” for the parties to discuss the strength of the claim.

“The Band still does not know what the Province thinks of the strength of its title claim. To restart the consultation the Province must remedy that deficiency,” he wrote.

Edwards said the province can no longer give a preliminary assessment of the title claim, but must give a tentative assessment, and give the band the opportunity to respond.

Outcomes of consultation

In a phone interview Tuesday, Larkin told CBC News band members do not agree on what they want to see happen with the Alton Gas project.

“Some members would like to see it stopped completely,” he said. “Other members would like to see a proper compensation plan that would be adopted. And so those things will have to be worked out through consultation and then internally in the band.”

Larkin said he had not spoken with his client since the decision was released. Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack did not respond to an interview request.

A spokesperson for the Department of Environment said the province takes the duty to consult “very seriously” and was preparing to start a virtual consultation process immediately.

Although the duty to consult rests entirely with the province, Alton Gas has participated in past consultations and presented arguments at the judicial review.

In a written statement after Edwards released his decision, Alton Gas said it “remains committed to ongoing, open dialogue with the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia including Sipekne’katik about the Alton Project.”

‘Back to the drawing board’

Larkin said he thinks the decision will shape the way the province consults with First Nations on future industrial approvals.

“I think what this decision points to is the province needs to go back to the drawing board and have a stronger commitment to making consultation on Aboriginal treaty rights effective,” Larkin said. SOURCE

Jason Kenney Claims Many Albertans at Risk of Eviction Are Involved in Vandalism or Growing Marijuana

Recently laid off workers are struggling to make rent after losing jobs thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and crashing oil prices

Facing a deadly pandemic and crashing oil prices, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney appeared to downplay the possibility that many newly unemployed workers will have trouble making ends meet.

At a COVID-19 press conference Monday afternoon, Kenney was asked what he plans to do about about potentially tens of thousands of newly laid off workers who may not have enough money to pay rent on April 1.

“Mr. Premier, you’ve talked about the government looking into what it can do to protect people from evictions,” one reporter asked. “We’re now eight days away from April 1, is there any movement on that? Will the government ban evictions?”

Kenney’s response?

“Well, first of all, there is a significant backlog on evictions and we are considering a potential short-term stay on enforcement of evictions, but please note that most of the eviction orders that would currently be in the system predate the COVID crisis.

Many of them would be renters who have not paid their rent for several months or who have been engaged in criminal activity or vandalism or operating grow-ops. Landlords need to be able to continue to protect the value of their property from bad tenants …

Contrary to Kenney’s claims, PressProgress has spoken to a number of newly unemployed workers in Alberta who say their landlords are refusing to show any flexibility on rent deadlines.

Karen, a Calgary renter who recently lost her job due to the coronavirus pandemic, said her landlord is refusing to grant an extension on rent: “I’ve been in this house 10 years and paid rent early every month for 10 years. I want to pay rent in full, I just need an extension.”

Karen said she is currently “trying to eat only one meal a day to save money.”

Another renter in Edmonton named Megan told PressProgress that both she and her roommate “got laid off from both our jobs due to the COVID-19 problems.”

Megan said she asked her landlord about “delaying rent until at least June or July as we will both be out of work for at least three months,” but her landlord said “no and rent is still to proceed as normal.”

According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, nearly half of all renters in Canada have less than a months worth of savings on hand.

To date, only the provincial governments of Ontario and Quebec have issued evictions bans, while the BC government has banned evictions in subsidized housing units. SOURCE

Canadian groups ask Ottawa to focus any oil bailout on workers and families, not corporations

 

A pickup truck is seen passing a mining shovel at an oil sands mine near Fort McMurray, Alta., in a file photo.  JEFF MCINTOSH/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Some Canadian organizations are asking the federal government to focus any bailout of the oil industry on workers and families, not corporations.

The request comes in an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, released Tuesday morning and signed by environmental organizations, faith and labour groups that the signatories say represent about 1.3 million people.

“Giving billions of dollars to failing oil and gas companies will not help workers and only prolongs our reliance on fossil fuels,” the letter says.

It comes in response to a media report that Ottawa is developing a multibillion-dollar bailout package for an industry buffeted by record low prices for its product.

Published reports have said industry executives want a program that would purchase distressed assets, suspend federal carbon and income taxes, and provide no-interest loans and loan guarantees.

But Rev. Cheri Di Novo of Toronto’s Trinity St. Paul’s United Church said that’s poor policy.

“If you pour money into the wealthiest people in the country and the biggest corporations, it doesn’t trickle down to the workers,” said Di Novo, a former Ontario New Democrat politician.

“It tends to stay at the top.”

Any oilpatch bailout is likely to be one of the biggest federal spending programs in recent memory, said Julia Levin of Environmental Defence.

She said such spending should be aligned with other federal priorities, such as helping workers transition from the fossil fuels industry and fighting climate change.

“They can use this opportunity to actually put in place the kinds of investments that are aligned with the commitments they’ve made.”

The letter calls for immediate income support for oil and gas workers, including increased access to unemployment insurance. It also suggests money for retraining workers for what it calls “emerging low-carbon sectors like energy efficiency, technology, health care and renewable energy.”

As well, it asks for money to hire workers to clean oil and gas wells left abandoned by energy companies no longer able to pay for them.

That money, it says, “should also be tied to regulatory change in Alberta to ensure the province puts in place a polluter-pays program so the public is not left with these liabilities in the future.”

Robin Edger of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment rejected the argument that bailing out companies would bail out their employees.

“Why don’t we just cut out the middleman? If our concern is the workers, we should just support the workers directly,” Edger said.

“We have oil and gas wells that need to be cleaned up. We have industries with real futures that we need workers to be trained into.”

Di Novo pointed out that massive bailouts of the auto industry didn’t help in the long term.

“Clearly, giving all that money to (General Motors) – and I was in government when they did it – did not save those workers’ jobs,” she said. “As soon as the company could make more profit by moving their operation somewhere else, they did.”

In 2009, the federal government spent $13.7-billion to bail out auto manufacturers. Much of that loan was never repaid and nearly 2,700 jobs will be lost in Oshawa, Ont., alone. SOURCE

Time to #CancelRent and defer mortgage payments

As incomes rapidly decline for households amid the COVID-19 crisis, calls for rent cancellations have grown across jurisdictions, including here in BC. As a CCPA report published yesterday shows, over 200,000 renter households in BC have less than one month’s savings on hand. The federal and provincial governments have announced packages to support incomes, but these dollars will not begin to reach households until April and May. With the rent due in a week’s time, urgent action is needed now.

In BC, the provincial government has already moved to halt evictions for non-payment of rent in all government-funded housing, and the Premier has stated that “no one will lose their apartment as a result of COVID-19.” It’s critical that any eviction ban ensure that renters unable to pay in this moment of crisis aren’t penalized – and should not merely delay their evictions until the crisis passes. In the interest of public health, other evictions should also be limited, given it is not possible to “stay home” and look for a new home or undertake a move all at the same time (with some exceptions, though no one self-isolating due to potential COVID-19 symptoms or who has the virus should be subject to eviction under any circumstance).

To ensure that everyone is secure in their home and able to have cash on hand for food and essentials, rent for April 1 should be cancelled without penalty for anyone who attests they’re unable to pay. This could be done using a simple on-line form submitted by renters at risk. By forgiving the rent rather than simply delaying payment, this policy would support renters facing an income crunch during this crisis.

This cancellation of rent payments should come alongside a more robust measure for mortgage payment deferrals. Last week the federal government announced that lenders would be allowed to offer deferred payments for mortgages insured by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). However, it is left up to financial institutions to work out details on a case-by-case basis, and does not apply to non-CMHC insured mortgages.

Lenders should instead be required to allow three to six month deferrals on residential mortgages (including for rental properties) and to extend amortization periods so households can reduce their monthly payments. Lenders should also be prohibited from charging fees for deferrals and loan restructuring, and be required to maintain the interest rate from the original loan or their current posted rate, whichever is less. The federal government should also issue guidelines for what constitutes hardship so that determining eligibility for these measures is not left up to individual banks and other financial institutions.

These mortgage deferrals and restructuring options would help ensure that small landlords are reasonably protected, and would make it easier for financially impacted homeowners more generally to avoid defaulting and contributing to a large-scale housing market crash. Such measures could be paired with a property tax deferral option, alongside the BC Hydro deferral already announced. The provincial government should also make funds available to landlords affected by a rent cancellation to be used for maintenance and other critical operating costs, as others have suggested.

If the federal and provincial emergency income supports are not reaching households quickly enough and remain at inadequate levels, rent cancellation will need to be extended to May. In many European countries, workers’ incomes affected by COVID-19 are being replaced at rates of up to 90%, compared to Canada’s Employment Insurance replacement rate of only 55% up to only $54,000 in insurable earnings, which means a maximum benefit of about $2,300 per month — barely enough to cover average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in Vancouver. Benefit rates will be even lower for those who will receive stop-gap federal emergency benefits rather than regular EI.

The combined federal and provincial income support efforts should be scaled up urgently. With adequate income support, households would be able to pay their bills again.

We outlined other important housing security measures in our previous post published last week. Income support targeted specifically to low-wage renters will be needed, and one form this could take is a significant expansion of eligibility for the provincial Rental Assistance Program, which provides cash assistance to low-income renters. To ensure no one falls through the cracks, the needed halt on evictions for non-payment of rent should remain in place on an ongoing basis until the social and economic situation stabilizes.

It is also important to highlight that given the long-running homelessness crisis in this province, emergency housing is needed for those without shelter and who cannot self-isolate. This could include requisitioning empty hotel space to provide housing (including appropriate staffing) for people experiencing homelessness, as is currently occurring in jurisdictions like California. Significant increases to income assistance rates are also urgently needed — these are long overdue, and now is the time to finally raise the rates. This is also important given the possibility of a spike in applications for welfare if temporary EI benefits aren’t extended as the economic crisis unfolds.

At a time of society-wide upheaval and anxiety, it’s important to take the stress of housing insecurity off the table. It cannot be left to the goodwill of landlords and banks to provide relief to British Columbians who are struggling. Rent cancellations present some complications, but we’re in an emergency and action is needed now to ensure that renters are secure in their homes and able to afford groceries in April. The rent is coming due in eight short days. SOURCE

‘I Am Willing to Take a Bullet for You. Are You Willing to Go on Strike for Me?’

The government won’t listen. The police keep cracking down. So Hong Kong protesters are trying a new tactic: They’re forming unions.

Medical workers in Hong Kong hold a strike to demand the government shut the city’s border with China to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, February 3, 2020. (Photo by Anthony Kwan / Getty Images)

At the beginning of February, thousands of public hospital workers in Hong Kong staged a weeklong strike in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Led by the newly formed Hospital Authority Employee Alliance (HAEA), the workers demanded that the local government ensure an adequate supply of masks, increase the number of isolation wards in hospitals, provide better support for doctors and nurses, and, perhaps most controversially, close the border with mainland China to contain the epidemic. More than 10 percent of the public health workforce voted in favor of strike action.

“We don’t want to go on strike, but the government has been ignoring the demands of the frontline medical workers,” said Winnie Yu, chairwoman of the HAEA at the strike’s announcement. “We have no choice.” The strike was called off after a week despite largely supportive public reactions, as the government continued to dismiss strikers’ demands.

The Hong Kong protest movement that started last June originally opposed a bill that would have allowed extradition to China. It has since expanded into a longer-term fight against police violence and for greater democracy and self-determination. The coronavirus outbreak took some sting out of the movement, but the networks of mutual aid and solidarity that formed have been essential to the public response to the epidemic, in what some say has started to look like a failed state. At the end of February, protesters rallied outside a railway station that had been locked down by the police six months ago after what many suspected were murders by the police; they were again met with a police crackdown. Recently, the police have begun to conduct late-night raids, arresting pro-democracy protesters, politicians, and public figures. They have also continued their repression of journalists.

Even prior to the outbreak, protesters had begun to extend their fight on the streets to resistance on all fronts. From plastering the city’s facades with protest art, literature, and rallying messages, to writing songs, staging performances, and encouraging dining and shopping at pro-movement businesses, Hong Kongers have used a diverse and innovative range of tactics to make their voices heard.

And after months of protests and sometimes violent clashes with police, some are yet again trying new tactics to put pressure on the government: They’re forming unions.

The call to “unionize and resist” has been growing in Hong Kong since the end of last year. Nearly 50 new unions have been formed or have started the process of being registered in the last five months, including groups for hotel workers, freelancers, bartenders, and designers. Many of these new unions explicitly state their support for the protest movement: The Hong Kong Hotel Employees Union states that one of its key aims is to push the government to meet the protesters’ five demands. The Hong Kong Educators Alliance’s core principles include “defending the profession,” “protecting frontline students,” and “fighting for democracy and freedom.”

And according to the HK On Strike Telegram channel—one of the largest groups devoted to union organizing, with more than 80,000 subscribers—almost 30,000 people have registered to become trade union members as of mid-February.

Before the current protest movement, union membership in Hong Kong was relatively low. As of 2013, the Labour Department reported that only 800,000 people—23 percent of the workforce—were union members. This new push is being led by Hong Kongers who have decided that economic pressure is the only way to break the impasse with the government. The challenge lies in whether they’ll be able to reinvigorate organized labor as a site of political struggle, an avenue that has been sidelined since the 1960s. If they succeed, a mass labor movement could perhaps achieve enough numbers for a collective withdrawal of labor, bringing this hyper-capitalist city’s economy to its knees­—the government’s greatest fear.

“We tried peaceful protests, but the government refused to respond to our demands,” says Lorie Lai, the chairperson of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists, a union on the front line of the movement that was founded last November. “The police regularly cut short legal rallies, arbitrarily arrest people on sight. Some protesters tried more militant tactics, but at the end of the day, the disparity in force between us and the police and government is simply too great. No matter what we do, the government ends up clamping down on us. We have to find ways to break the bottleneck.”

Light display spells out

Medical workers and other activists on strike at Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority building, February 7, 2020. (Photo by Philip Fong / AFP via Getty Images)

Hong Kongers have been toying with the idea of a general strike since the beginning of the protests.

Last July, just a few weeks after the current movement began, a mob of men in white T-shirts besieged the Yuen Long train station and indiscriminately assaulted people who were on their way home from a protest. This event marked a turning point: Some suspected the police had colluded with triads to attack protesters. Others were alarmed by how the police had refused to respond to their emergency calls. Whatever they believed, the incident caused many to lose faith in the police and the government to uphold justice.

Soon after the attack, messages circulated on social media, asking people to resist the “new normal” through escalating protest action. Two weeks later, on August 5, more than 350,000 people participated in flash protests and “non-cooperative actions” across the city, blocking key roads and important transit hubs with the aim of paralyzing traffic and forcing a de facto general strike.

In early November, university student Alex Chow Tsz-Lok died after falling off a parking structure while fleeing police tear gas. Others had died or disappeared in suspicious circumstances since the movement began, but this was the first time a death was directly linked to police actions. As the movement was flooded with grief and anger, protesters started calling for a strike through Telegram to show the government that they would not let Chow die in vain and would keep fighting to have their demands met. Protesters renewed their attempts to blockade roads and force a “strike” by preventing people from reaching their workplaces. During this action, called Operation Dawn, a transport police officer shot a 21-year-old in the stomach with live ammunition. The student survived, but with severe injuries.

“These were really important learning experiences for organizers,” says Lai. “We learned that after traumatizing events, lots of people are willing to come out to the streets and stand together for a general strike. But calling for a strike simply through emotional mobilization does not work. Without enough organization, people cannot prepare adequately for strike action, and such actions will also be very difficult to sustain.”

JC is a student activist and one of the administrators of the Telegram group HK On Strike. (He asked The Nation not to use his real name.) He sees the move toward unionization and a general strike as not only a response to escalating police violence but also an example of the innovative quality of the ongoing protests. “The spirit of this movement is that we have to try everything,” he says. “There is no specified method of resistance; the movement welcomes any and all forms of protest.

“In June, we saw hundreds of anti-extradition bill petitions emerging from different schools, professional sectors, and social groups. There was not a single organization instructing them to do so; this was a truly spontaneous movement.”

The union push has also grown up alongside Hong Kong’s so-called “yellow economy,” which likewise aims to embed the protest movement in people’s everyday lives. Supporters of the movement are encouraged to dine and shop only at pro-democracy, or “yellow,” businesses and to boycott companies with perceived links to the Hong Kong government or China. The earliest examples of this practice were widespread boycotts and vandalism of companies such as Bank of China and Starbucks. Hong Kongers extensively crowdsource information about which businesses are supportive of the protests, and some yellow establishments have hired young protesters who were kicked out of their homes, offered help to those affected by tear gas, and provided water to people marching on the streets.

Like the crowdsourced maps listing yellow businesses, the HK On Strike group relies on its members to circulate information. It operates primarily as a space to share updates about different groups’ progress in establishing and registering their unions. Participants can also discuss strategies for recruitment, spread awareness of the benefits of union membership, and share left perspectives on Hong Kong society.

JC created the group after he and other activists saw growing interest in the concept of a general strike on LIHKG, Hong Kong’s version of Reddit and an anonymous, public forum for organizing protests. He noted that there had been an uptick in activity in the Telegram group after Operation Dawn ended in arrest and police violence in November, with the number of participants soaring from 10,000 to 60,000 people in a matter of days.

HK On Strike also organizes political education activities, such as street stalls and workshops in collaboration with established trade unions, on topics ranging from how to establish a strike fund to how to register with the Hong Kong Labour Department.

“Our ultimate aim is to prepare Hong Kongers for a real, sustained general strike that will push the government to listen to our demands,” says JC.

Hong Kong has a long history of trade union organizing and political strikes, dating back to the colonial era. One of the most significant actions was the Seamen’s Strike in 1922, which demanded wage parity between Chinese and British workers, and was brutally suppressed by the British colonial administration. In recent years, Hong Kong has seen multiple large-scale industrial actions. A metalworkers’ strike in 2007 and a dockworkers’ strike in 2013 both led to significant wage increases and called attention to the huge disparities between these industries’ respective skyrocketing profits and workers’ meager wages. The cleaners’ strike in 2017 also resulted in reforms to government policies on sub-contracting.

However, unions have generally been sidelined in mainstream political and social movements. Because of ideological fissures and the depoliticization of labor-related issues, Hong Kongers have rarely seen trade unions as a straightforward arena for political mobilization.

For one thing, there has been a split between trade unions with ties to the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang in Taiwan, and more recently founded unions that are in the pro-democracy camp and support social movements. In 1967, the pro-CCP Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (HKFTU) staged a seven month-long riot against the British colonial government—heeding the example of the Cultural Revolution—that began as a labor dispute, and turned into call for a return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty.

Mid-May riots

A policeman puts a young demonstrator in an armlock during the early weeks of the 1967 riots. (AP Photo)

In the course of the riots, 51 people died, including 15 who were killed by militant leftists who planted bombs across the city. More than 800 were injured by both the bombs and police brutality. A radio commentator and vocal critic of the protests named Lam Bun was murdered during the uproar: His car was doused in gasoline with him inside and set on fire. The violence alienated large swaths of Hong Kong society, and the riots were widely seen as a spillover from the Cultural Revolution, not rooted in local concerns. (The historian Gary Cheung noted in his book Hong Kong’s Watershed that the HKFTU had previously failed to support the Star Ferry riots, a hyperlocal movement that had been spurred by a rise in ferry fares the year before.)

The 1967 riots conflated left-wing politics with the CCP in the public imagination. In sociologists Lui Tai-lok and Stephen Chiu’s words, it “hollow[ed] out” grassroots groups and trade unions, stealing their momentum. People began to believe that the electoral realm is where real politics would happen, particularly when it came to deciding the future of the city after the handover to China in 1997. Issues of everyday life were relegated to the depoliticized arenas of welfare and social policy.

After the wave of political mobilization in the 1960s, the British colonial government attempted to defuse activism by strengthening social service provisions, including implementing free basic education, shorter working hours, and increasing the availability of public housing. Academic Agnes Ku notes that the government continually pointed to the example of the 1967 riots as an example of the threat of social upheaval, stressing instead the importance of state-directed efficiency, stability, and prosperity. This continued after the handover, with the government adopting policies prioritizing Hong Kong’s economic development and competitiveness, presenting them as a panacea to all social and distributive issues.

Article 27 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law—the territory’s mini-constitution—guarantees residents the right to form and join associations, including trade unions. The right to form a union is reserved for those who ordinarily reside in Hong Kong; that does not necessarily include migrant workers, though some have mobilized through unions and other networks to fight for stronger protections. Notably, there are no provisions for collective bargaining for anyone, which means that negotiations between employers and trade unions are not protected by law. Furthermore, strikes are legally protected only when they pertain solely to labor disputes—which is why, for example, the Hospital Authority recently warned striking medics that they may face repercussions for their politicized strike action.

Carol Ng, the chairperson of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, the largest pro-democracy union organization in Hong Kong, believes that many of the city’s unions have failed to reflect their members’ political views. “For example, there are seven unions representing railway workers in Hong Kong, but they are all pro-establishment, and disconnected from their members’ grievances,” she says. “It wasn’t until the formation of Railway Power [a pro-democracy union] last October that rank-and-file workers have a union actively supporting their demands.”

Despite that history, some longer-standing unions have been instrumental in mobilizing for the pro-democracy movement. When dozens of Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon staff members were fired last year, flight attendant unions demanded explanations for what they saw as politically motivated dismissals, including through going on strike. One pilot was terminated after he made an announcement saying that the large-scale occupation at the Hong Kong airport was aimed at drawing international attention to the movement. The leader of the Cathay Dragon union was fired after management saw her social media posts expressing support for the protests. Many interpreted these firings as the start of a wider campaign of “white terror,” aimed at silencing people from expressing their views, and the unions were ultimately unable to bring Cathay to the negotiating table. Later, after social workers who attempted to mediate between protesters and the police were arrested, the General Union of Social Workers held numerous rallies and went on strike against police brutality.

Ng says that most Hong Kongers are not well-informed about the labor movement and the power of unions—including the successes of the metalworkers’ and dockworkers’ strikes. However, she believes that protesters’ eagerness to experiment with different tactics may yet renew labor organizing efforts, as a new wave of pro-democracy unions develops and strengthens over time.

For many new labor organizers, the recent wave of unionization is an opportunity to bridge labor issues with the broader social movement. They hope that workers will see how their workplace issues have root causes in poor policy-making and resource allocation and take action against them.

Lai, of the speech therapists’ union, drew an analogy between her profession and the policies of the Hong Kong government. “If a child can’t speak, we always try to look for the root causes, rather than just to teach the child to say this word or that sentence,” she says. “Applying this to the labor issues in the speech therapy and social work sectors, we can see how the underlying causes of these problems lie with the government, its lack of legitimacy, and failure to enact effective policy.”

She raised the example of the “lump-sum grant” system introduced in 2000 by Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, back when Lam was the director of the Social Welfare Department. The government said the new system would bring about more cost-effective use of public funds, but it was effectively an austerity measure that prevented speech therapists and social workers from advancing up the salary ladder and demoralized senior staff members. It also limited already-stretched NGOs’ capacity to provide quality social services, forcing them to choose between expanding services or ensuring appropriate pay for their workers.

Lai thinks that the failures of the “lump-sum grant” system point to the misallocation of resources—a deeper problem that concerns many in the speech therapy industry. “Some of our members told us that children who need pre-school rehabilitation often have to wait for a year or two before they can get an appointment with a speech therapist,” she says. “We hope to pressure the government to make changes by going on strike, so that Hong Kong’s resource distribution would be fairer. Instead of spending money on white elephant infrastructure projects, more resources can be used in health care and social welfare.”

Ng says that she believes if the unionization momentum carries on, it could put forward challengers for seats in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and force a change of guard in the Election Committee—the 1,200-member body that chooses Hong Kong’s chief executive—as well as the Labour Advisory Board, which advises the government on making labor laws.

Currently, 5 percent of the Election Committee members are union representatives. According to Ng, the majority of existing unions support the government, or are affiliated with the pro-CCP HKFTU. After the pro-democracy camp’s landslide victory in District Council elections last fall and the formation of nearly 50 new unions, Ng believes that pro-democracy unions are theoretically better placed than before to choose the chief executive. It’s not clear whether this would work, though: They would likely struggle to achieve a pro-democracy majority in the Legislative Council and would still be working within a fundamentally undemocratic system. The Hong Kong government has also taken to disqualifying pro-democracy lawmakers in recent years.

May Day in Hong Kong

Striking dockworkers and supporters march to the government’s office during a May Day rally, May 1, 2013. They carry a defaced portrait of local billionaire Li Ka-shing, owner of companies they were striking against. (AP Photo / Vincent Yu)

Ng points out that the radical potential of unions can only be achieved if the labor movement develops alongside the political movement. “Advocating for worker rights is the basic obligation of unions, without which it cannot bring people together. Electoral gains and the five demands should not be unions’ main objective,” she says. “We are all victims of the inequitable distribution of resources and power in our capitalist society, and unions should be using the power they can mobilize to overturn these things. Without a commitment to this, it is hard to see what social and political reform these unions can effect.”

Union organizing is also an exercise in democracy. Lai describes how she and her committee were voted into office during an extraordinary general meeting, with fair and proper procedures in which every members’ vote was counted equally, which enabled them to be legitimate representatives of their union.

For Ng, establishing democratic processes in unions is also conducive to better industrial actions. She believes that organizing actions with a notification period and democratically decided agendas gives members a greater feeling of ownership and involvement, and provides reassurance to those who fear reprisal from their employers.

“The more secure members feel, the more people will participate, and the more likely the strike would be effective—there is strength in numbers,” said Ng.

“I am willing to take a bullet for you, are you willing to go on strike for me?” has become a popular slogan in the protest movement. Aside from the recent medical workers’ walkout, there have been strikes in the advertisingmusic, and aviation industries, among others. But without strong bargaining power and a critical mass of workers, a sustained general strike remains out of reach. Lai remains undeterred; she believes that unionizing and mobilizing for a general strike are her ways of contributing to the resistance.

“Different people assume different roles in our movement,” she says. “Militant front-liners brave bullets, while those with families to care for take on lower risk actions. Because of my age and relative financial stability, I can afford to go on strike. And I want our union to take the initiative.” SOURCE