COVID-19 has highlighted more than ever the importance of PSAC and the Social Justice Fund’s humanitarian efforts across the globe. The pandemic has revealed deep structural inequalities in our society: the proliferation of precarious work affecting youths, women and racialized workers; the lack of affordable housing and potable water in Indigenous communities andthe privatization and deterioration of eldercare, to name but a few. COVID-19 may not have caused these injustices, but it has exacerbated them and exposed the underlying inequalities of a system that has long placed profits ahead of people.
In order to address the pressing issues facing vulnerable communities not included in assistance packages being developed both in Canada and internationally,the Social Justice Fund (SJF) created a COVID-19 Emergency and Recovery Fund, matched by PSAC.
The SJF is working closely with allies and communities to expand existing programs and identify new avenues to address inequality.
The pandemic exposed the weaknesses in government programs and the free market system that leave so many communities underserved and underresourced. When it became clear that COVID-19 disproportionately impacted already marginalized groups, PSAC and the SJF quickly stepped in to fill in the gaps in the federal government’s assistance programs.
During the first wave of the pandemic, the SJF supported several national efforts, such as Canada Without Poverty’s Pandemic Watch, the Dignity for All campaign “Chew on This,” the newly formed Network on the Right to Housing, and the ACORN’s campaign to prevent further COVID-19 evictions in seven cities across the country.
In response to local initiatives, the SJF contributed to the Abluqta Society food bank in Baker Lake, Nunavut, overwhelmed by demand because of mine closures and unemployment due to COVID-19. It also responded to Justice for Migrant Workers, which has been providing food boxes, personal protective equipment, information sessions and legal support for migrant farm workers impacted by COVID-19 in Southern Ontario. In Ottawa, the Amethyst Women’s Addiction Centre received support to transition from an entirely in-person social service to one that offers its programs virtually. Many of the SJF Canada-wide anti-poverty initiatives for 2020 are also addressing the challenges of COVID-19.
The SJF is working with several organizations that have a proven record of helping their members and communities. Because of COVID-19, they face very difficult challenges keeping their communities safe, ensuring the availability of food and health resources, all while continuing to defend workers’ rights, women’s empowerment and the protection of land and water rights.
One of the first calls received by the SJF was from OXFAM Canada already working in some of the most precarious and overcrowded refugee camps in the world, where people are desperately struggling to access clean water, nutritious food, health care, safe shelter and other basic needs.
Support for workers under the COVID-19
Bangladesh: As early as March, an urgent call from Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity informed the SJF that garment factories were being shuttered, temporarily laying off millions of garment workers who were forced to return to their villages with empty pockets, unable to collect unpaid wages or severance pay from closed factories. Canadian unions pressured governments and Canadian brands and retailers to honour their obligations to suppliers and workers by paying for orders that were completed or in production. The Canadian Labour Funds raised $100,000 to support the work of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity to provide hygiene kits and food baskets for 15,000 workers and their families.
Zimbabwe: The SJF and CUPE Global Justice are jointly supporting the Zimbabwe Health Workers’ Union that is facing intimidation and layoffs by the repressive government of Emmerson Mnangagwa. The support aims to strengthen the union’s bargaining power during COVID-19 in order to improve working conditions and salaries of health workers, obtain PPE, reinstate workers who were laid off and end intimidation by the employer.
Mexico: The SJF has channeled funds to a labour rights organization to mitigate the economic impacts of the pandemic on women factory workers on the northern border of Mexico. This support includes monitoring workers who are at risk of economic vulnerability and domestic violence, purchasing communication equipment for better coordination among organizers, and distributing masks, sanitizers, medicines and food to factory workers.
Palestine: The SJF joined other Canadian unions in providing funds to supply food and hygiene kits to 1,000 poor and struggling families of Palestinian workers in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The program not only provided supplements to workers who have been hard hit by COVID-19, but it also was a way of maintaining union connections. Every morning, union members go to the checkpoints to contact workers and provide them with food and hygiene kits and information on protective measures, including legal support if they were expelled from Israel due to COVID-19.
Indigenous Peoples and Afrodescendants
Colombia: The SJF provided support to the Wayuu Indigenous women’s organization, distributing food and sanitary supplies to the communities impacted by coal mining in Guajira, Colombia.
Funds for emergency food security were also channelled to the INGA Indigenous communities of Villagarzon, Putumayo, caught between the ongoing threats by Colombian security forces, Alberta oil interests and severe food shortages due to COVID-19. The support included biosafety and food kits and small-scale animal husbandry projects to benefit 900 families impacted by food shortages linked to COVID-19.
Guatemala: The SJF and the USW Humanity Fund provided $20,000 to shore up food security for 500 Mayan Families facing extreme poverty during COVID-19. This project implemented by long term PSAC partner, Campesino Committee of the Highlands of Guatemala (CCDA), includes the distribution of emergency food supplies and hygiene kits as well as seeds, poultry and training to maintain sustainable food production.
Honduras: SJF contributed to Rights Action and its COVID-19 Emergency Fund that supports Indigenous communities in Honduras and Guatemala and allied organizations. Amid the pandemic, local governments are using repressive policies to curb dissent under the cover of COVID-19 lockdowns.
The SJF provided support for 27 local health centres created by the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras(OFRANEH) in response to the pandemic. These centres, led by community women leaders, are focusing on the elaboration and distribution of masks and gel, the planting of community vegetable gardens, and the growing of medicinal plants to strengthen the immune system.
Women and Human Rights Organizations
Philippines: The SJF provided support for the replacement of laptops, cell phones and cameras destroyed in a military raid on the offices of the front line Human Rights defenders on the Island of Negros, Philippines. The equipment is crucial for their protection and their ongoing human rights work given that the government is using the COVID-19 lockdown as an excuse to crack down on unions and civil society across the country.
Chile: Responding to a call by the feminist movement of Chile ‘Coordinadora Feminista 8M,’ the SJF is supporting a network of 10 women's collective or assemblies that are organizing community responses to COVID-19, including soup kitchens, information sessions, measures against domestic violence, protection of migrant and Indigenous populations, mask-making and community-based protective measures throughout Chile.
Honduras: In collaboration with the Simcoe County Honduras Rights Monitor Committee (SCHRM), community organizers in the capital city of Tegucigalpa and the northern city of El Progreso have initiated community-led food programs that are facilitated by local women who advocate for social justice and who keep watch over the residents in the poorest neighbourhoods. The SJF is supporting those initiatives.
Colombia: The SJF is also providing support to its long-term partner, the Association for Social Research and Action (NOMADESC) in its effort to raise awareness and prevent the spread of COVID-19 among communities in Southwestern Colombia by purchasing food, sanitary supplies and basic necessities, providing training to ensure public health guidelines are followed, and monitoring human rights violations.
El Salvador: In the Peace Community of Bajo Lempa, the SJF is supporting the distribution of emergency food, medical supplies, and agricultural inputs for 200 families.
PSAC and the SJF hope that the solidarity provided under the COVID-19 Emergency and Recovery Fund can play a role in ensuring the vitality of social movements in Canada and internationally during these unprecedented times.