Unmasking The Racialized Surge of COVID-19 Cases Amongst Precarious Brampton Workers


            From warehouse workers to Uber drivers, precarious work is a rapidly spreading reality tied to dire consequences for many Canadians. Through the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the high number of cases falls upon on communities of precarious workers. The Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development defines precarious employment as the "work for remuneration characterized by uncertainty, low income, and limited social benefits and statutory entitlements" (Ministry of Labour, 2019). In the midst of a pandemic, the need for conversation around fundamental changes taking place in today's labour market has never been more urgent. Moreover, understanding racialized precarity is of utmost importance in the current era of the Black Lives Matter movement to deconstruct structural inequalities.

Why are pandemic hotspots 'hot'?

        The objective of this research is to use existing knowledge of the relationship between precariousness and racialized workers to understand gaps in the literature surrounding "hotspots" of a pandemic using the case-study of Brampton, Ontario (DeClerq, 2020). The gaps in the literature surrounding precarity includes the lack of information surrounding the precarious job market in the presence of a pandemic. How does precarious work place racialized workers at an increased risk during the COVID-19 pandemic from a social determinants of health perspective (SDOH)? After conducting a literature review, a SDOH lens showcases that the racialized, precarious workforce results in health inequities during the pandemics. With the recommendations, the blog post will propose effective and equitable provision of health resources and interventions. Society and states of emergencies isolate these individuals.

Taking on a Social Determinants of Health Lens

            Former research on pandemics reproduce the biomedical model of care that narrows health to the "absence of disease", an individual pathology, and an individualized plan of treatment (Armstrong and Banerjee, 2009; Armstrong and Armstrong, 2010; Day, 2014). Many scholars claim that the biomedical field must "maintain and prioritize its critical role" in comprehensive pandemic preparedness plans (Marston, Paules, & Fauci, 2017). Rather, the SDOH, the social and economic factors that influence health, specifically race and employment, play an important role in the transmission of COVID-19.

Employment as a Driver of Health

            The Canadian workforce and the post-World War II welfare state used the "White male-breadwinner model" (Bernhardt, 2015). Smardon (2011) examines the form of Keynesianism which focused on "private investment through lower interest rates" rather than redistribution of income from higher to lower economic classes (Smardon, 2011, p.154). Without this redistributive focus, the aim of assisting vulnerable Canadians was far from a goal. In comparison with other OECD welfare states, Canada has a high level of unemployment and with no full-employment objective, precariousness, unemployment and poverty became norms of the workforce (O'Connor, 1989).

            Greater Toronto Area-Hamilton (GTAH) precarious workers take over the labour market (See Appendix A). According to a 2016 Statistics Canada survey, the largest industry group in Brampton is manufacturing, including large percentages of the workforce in the trucking sector moving between hotspots regularly (Statistics Canada, 2016). Employment agencies in Brampton factories place individuals into precarious jobs with limited employee benefits, minimal sick leave, and poor working conditions. Accordingly, the precarious workforce found in racialized communities including Brampton promote health inequity.

Race as a Driver of Health

            Using the SDOH model, there exists an embedded racialization in precarious employment. Racialized workers and non-citizens are the most likely to be in precarious work (Benhardt, 2015). Li (2008) understands racialization as the "process by which society attributes social significance to groups on superficial physical grounds" but the definition fails to distinguish members of society and societal structures (p.21). These racial groupings face differences in earnings with less pay for non-whites. Union membership provides a degree of protection from precariousness but Cranford and Vosko (2006) reports that people of colour are less likely covered by an union contract than Whites. Although Jackson (2006) understood that workers of colour are more willing to unionize amongst unorganized workers, he relies on the employer hiring patterns as a source neglecting anti-union practices. Some scholars find the solution to exclusion to a secure job market in advocating for a return to Keynesian policies (Tcherneva, 2011). The solution to a racialized issue cannot be found in 'colour blind' approaches that have never challenged racialized power structures.

        South Asians living in GTAH are experiencing increased levels of racial segregation and present in all forms of precarious employment (See Appendix B). Brampton is home to numerous Amazon 'fulfillment centers' and large scale warehouses. In these workplaces, immigrants do not place priority on working conditions as the job market is hard to enter. One in every seven households is a multigenerational house consisting of five or more people and this is due to financial constraints amongst racialized workers (Central Countries, 2019). Critics see this family-community model as a risk but it shields the elder population while avoiding loss of connection amongst elders. Accordingly, the conditions that are met with racialized precarious workers is one that places their lives at risk during a pandemic.

Precarity, Race, and COVID-19?

            Finkel (2006) notes the Canadian universal health care system as the saving grace of the welfare state and limits the scope of precariousness for the most vulnerable. Rather, Canada's health care holds inequities that are now being exposed during the pandemic. Many participants of Premji and Shakya's (2014) study claimed that individual and familial health deteriorated due to the job market they faced after coming to Canada. Beyond the health implications from poor working conditions, race and employment plays a huge role when experiencing a pandemic such as COVID-19. Racialized workers did not have availability to many tests, more likely to be COVID-19 positive, and more likely to live in low-income neighborhoods with poor living conditions and higher household densities (WHSC, 2020). High numbers of racialized workers in precarious work disallow essential workplaces to physical distance from others. Precarious workers are less likely to receive adequate health, safety, and job-specific training which is a necessity during the pandemic (WHSC, 2020).

            The GTHA in Canada has 28.5% of the workforce in precarious work (PEPSO, 2015) and holds 130872 confirmed cases of COVID-19 (Public Health Ontario, 2020). Brampton, alone, holds 34351 confirmed COVID-19 cases (Public Health Ontario, 2020). South Asians in Brampton experience health inequities including higher rates of illnesses, lack of access to health care services, and the poor quality of overall health care and outcomes. The mayor of Brampton, Patrick Brown, released that Brampton receives 1000 dollars less in health care funding per capita than all other cities in Ontario (Callan, 2020). The provincial average for hospital beds per 1000 residents is 2.19 in comparison to Bramptons 0.96 beds (Callan, 2020). Ultimately, South Asians endure an inequitable health situation while being a racially segregated community placed in an urban residential area that lacks amenities.

            The results indicate that a SDOH lens will showcase that communities of racialized workers in precarious employment place these areas at a higher risk of COVID-19 and health inequities. Precarious work has resulted in unfair working conditions amongst workers. Racialized workers threaten the job market from the perspective of Whites and therefore, structural inequalities create barriers that prohibit these workers from entering the job market. These two SDOH, employment and race, create inequities amongst groups that would not have been observable through a biomedical lens. Das Gupta (2006) claims that people of colour threatened the organized working class and has historically been signed to the lease desirable jobs due to systemic discrimination and exclusion from professional sectors experiencing limited social and employment options. As this perpetuated, workers accepted inferior working conditions and Heron and Palmer (1977) contextualized their threat as negatively impacting the value of non-white work. This created a long-lasting stigmatization targeted at racialized workers forcing them into precarious work. Because of this, they are left out in the preparation of emergency and preparedness plans created for pandemics.

What should we do?

            From this research, we understand that the communities with high racialized, precarious workers are at a disadvantage in the time of a pandemic. These conclusions could benefit from recent datasets surrounding precarious work. Although this post did not take on an intersectional lens using a feminist framework as it is beyond scope, it is important to note that this outlook is necessary in understanding the gendered relations of precarious work. By focusing on the SDOH, policymakers can consider more options such as affordable housing opportunities, access to employment and income supports, and educational opportunities. Public policies must limit the spread through mobile testing at workplaces at-risk groups work or communities where they live (Province of Nova Scotia, 2020). During a time where nations rely on essential employment, communities need better training and workplace safety enforcement measures. Moreover, income benefits or programs must be a method of emergency response plans. The use of the Employment Precarity Index will allow us to measure the effects of job insecurity on individuals, families, and communities (United Way, 2013). Until policymakers take these recommendations seriously, parents have to choose between going to work to feed their children or stay at home, risk-free. Their choice to go to work as essential workers, to deliver, to feed, and to drive is the reason why many of us can stay risk-free.


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Appendix A: Forms of employment in the GRA-Hamilton labour market 2011: ages 25-65 (%)


Source: PEPSO Survey. Of this group, about 70% are in full-time employment but not in SER. 16% are self-employed with employees. 13% are in full-time employment but their hours varied from week to week and in some weeks could be less than 30 hours.


Appendix B: Racialized pattern of precarity (% of racialized groups and white group)


Source: PEPSO Survey. p<=.001

Written By: Thenushaa Ratnasapapathy