UBC Faculty Research and Publications

Essential work, precarious labour : The need for safer and equitable harm reduction work in the era of COVID-19 Olding, Michelle; Barker, Allison; McNeil, Ryan, 1982-; Boyd, Jade


This commentary highlights labour concerns and inequities within the harm reduction sector that hinder programs’ ability to respond to converging public health emergencies (the overdose crisis and COVID19), and potentially contribute to spread of the novel coronavirus. Many harm reduction programs continue to support people who use illicit drugs (PWUD) during the pandemic, yet PWUD working in harm reduction programs (sometimes termed ‘peers’) experience precarious labour conditions characterized by low wages, minimal employee benefits (such as paid sick leave) and high employment insecurity. Along with precarious labour conditions, PWUD face heightened vulnerabilities to COVID-19 and yet have been largely overlooked in global response to the pandemic. Operating under conditions of economic and legal precarity, harm reduction programs reliance on precarious labour (e.g. on-call, temporary and unpaid work) renders some services vulnerable to staffing shortages and service disruptions during the pandemic, while also heightening the risk of virus transmission among workers, service users and their communities. We call for immediate policy and programmatic actions to strengthen working conditions within these settings with a priority on enhancing protections and supports for workers in peer roles.

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