Article by Growth Op
To mitigate the financial strain COVID-19 and social distancing has placed on Canadians, the government has announced greater eligibility for EI and other financial breaks in the weeks and months to come. But these measures don’t offer much to those employed in an illegal capacity, like the very active illicit cannabis market. As someone who is currently employed by an illicit Toronto cannabis organization, I am acutely aware of the dangers of continued exposure to this virus in the workplace.
Every day, I come into contact with dozens of co-workers and customers, often in small enclosed spaces, in close proximity to one another. Our employer is diligent in ensuring that surfaces at our facility are sanitized regularly, and items such as Lysol wipes and disposable gloves are made available for staff to use throughout the day. But it isn’t mandatory for staff to wear gloves or a mask, or maintain physical distance from others. Customers are free to walk in and purchase products without being screened in any way, asked whether they are experiencing symptoms, or even suggested to use sanitizer or maintain a safe distance from anyone else. Throughout the day, staff and customers sell product for cash or digital payments via credit card, often without the added protection of the nitrile gloves sitting in a box just a few feet away. Some workers take steps to protect themselves, but many do not.
There is no question that COVID-19 poses a serious health threat, and therefore is to be taken seriously. But we have bills to pay, too, and families to feed. Many workers like myself continue to expose ourselves to this virus day after day. Due to our involvement in the illegal sector, we face greater barriers to government-funded EI — why would we qualify as recipients?
And since illicit businesses pay their staff in cash, often at the end of each day, this is a huge incentive for workers to keep coming to work, despite the risks. As the spread of this virus has become more rampant in recent days, I’m glad to see that more staff are starting to at least adhere to the safety protocols available by wearing gloves, provided by our employer, and masks if they are able to get them on their own.
My conversations with co-workers reveal that many are more fearful of COVID-19 than they let on. Managers place pressure on workers to keep working at a time when profits appear to be at an all-time high. Many feel like they could be easily replaced, and if they express their fears about COVID-19 and ask to remain home on quarantine, they could be replaced by another worker and not have a job to return to when this is over. These employees constantly find themselves torn and in a difficult position: Follow the government-recommended steps and practice social distancing – and in doing so, give up a steady and certain stream of income with no guarantee of a job to return to in a few weeks, or months.
For many of us, this income is the primary means of sustenance for ourselves and family members that rely on us. Some workers opt to work fewer hours, due to the fear of contracting and spreading the virus to their families via community transmission. These people often quietly give away their shifts to other coworkers, as opposed to directly expressing their concerns to management. Others appear unconcerned about the virus, seeming to believe it only impacts the elderly and the chronically ill. This attitude is reinforced by management, who likely face their own pressures from senior managers and regional supervisors, all in the spirit of keeping profits flowing at a time when our products are clearly very much in-demand.
While the company I work for serves its clients in discreet, small stores, some cannabis companies offer delivery to bring their products directly to their clients. While clients no doubt appreciate the service, this practice is extremely risky for workers who are often not provided with protective gear from their employer, and then forced to enter customer homes and accept cash and mobile debit/credit payments throughout the day.
Illicit cannabis workers like myself are especially vulnerable to health complications in exposing ourselves to COVID-19. We put ourselves at great risk every time we come in contact with a customer, not knowing whether that person is, or has been ill, has travelled recently or been in contact with other potential carriers of the virus.
Our prospects for economic security are even more fragile than average citizens, since we operate outside of the law that exists to serve and protect people. But we need the money. To that end, we continue to do our jobs, taking as many precautions as possible and simply hoping for the best.