Back in early March—a different world. We had a safety meeting on my construction site. The safety rep read out a fairly accurate report describing the novel coronavirus, and how sites should adopt more hand-washing methods and sanitation. Then he stopped, and added his own editorial comment: “This is the flu, guys. You realize that this is people freaking out about the flu.”
I couldn’t help myself, and yelled from the back of the room, “It’s not the flu! Its SARS!” We work in Toronto, which dealt with a contained SARS-1 outbreak in 2003, but it was touch-and-go, and the city came close to having real community transmission. The safety rep doubled down, and repeated, “It’s the flu! The flu is actually really serious, you seem to not understand that.” I shook my head.
Sitting next to me, a Chinese worker stood up. He gave a short speech, in halting English, about how the threat from COVID-19 was very real, his family in China was affected, and we should be installing hand sanitizers at entrances to the site. On construction sites, in general, Asian workers face a lot of workplace discrimination; so, it was incredibly brave of him to stand up like that. The safety rep dismissed him, said he couldn’t possibly know what he was talking about, and refused to put sanitizers at entrances.
A few weeks later, the same safety rep would fire the same Chinese worker because his wife had been exposed to the virus at her workplace. It was, as far as I know, the only safety action the rep took—to fire a Chinese worker who was far more knowledgeable and concerned about the virus than he was.
This incident was a precursor to how the virus-containment would play out on my worksite, and within the industry as a whole. The general policy was to carry on with business as usual, compounded by terrible sanitation practices. Management responsible for safety was unable or unwilling to do anything to deal with this new and very present risk to our health.
The construction industry is tough; even when we are unionized, employment is always precarious. We are basically day laborers, though some of us make $90,000 (CAD) a year, while other construction workers, on the same site, are living in homeless shelters. With job sites constantly changing, people are dependent on family connections, ethnic networks and personal friendships for the next job. Unions help mitigate some of this instability, especially in the pay rate, but they don’t eliminate it, and you can always be laid off for a “shortage of work.”
In this atmosphere of job insecurity, speaking out about safety is always a huge risk. If you speak out, you risk your job. You risk being labeled a troublemaker, and blacklisted. You are routinely doing unsafe work and concerned that if the safety inspector walks by, your job is at risk from him, too. You are told at orientation not to work off a ladder, and then given a ladder and told to install lights in the ceiling. And if you fall off the ladder, you are fined for ignoring the safety rule at orientation. Now, take this industry, used to dealing with physical risks like falling, or being crushed under a collapsing wall, and add in a brand-new biological threat that is poorly understood.
Throughout March, other industries continued to shut down. Restaurants and cafes closed. All concerts and large gatherings were cancelled. But we kept going to work. Our work was marked “essential.” My fellow workers, through private WhatsApp groups and text messages, began to express their doubts: was building a casino, “essential”? Was renovating an office that won’t be used, “essential”? Was building a condo with million-dollar units, that were mostly investment opportunities rather than living spaces, “essential”? What about a new courthouse that wouldn’t be finished for two years? We got the stink eye when we walked together across the street to get coffee for not social distancing, and yet we are working literally on top of each other all day.
Our bathrooms are always filthy. Sometimes we don’t even have bathrooms; especially piece workers often have to urinate into bottles left all over the site. It’s not unusual to find a pile of human shit in a stairwell or a closet. I knew a worker who, every day, showed up to work drunk and puked every morning all over the unfinished balconies. Porta potties end up with piles of shit that stack up above the seats, and people squat on the seat to add more to the pile. Women workers are often locked out of women bathrooms when they do exist (and they often don’t) and trans workers face serious discrimination and lack of access to any facilities. And these are union worksites on big jobs, with the best conditions in the industry.