As COVID-19 sweeps across the globe it is mostly women, many racialized, on the frontlines of the pandemic response providing public services like health care, social services and child care. For too long, many of these jobs have been undervalued. As the pandemic unfolds, there’s growing recognition here and around the world that this work is crucial, and that working conditions and wages must improve.

Workers face dire health and safety concerns. They don’t have personal protective equipment, sufficient staff or adequate sterilization supplies. Many work in low-wage jobs, lacking health and safety rules, job security, benefits, sick leave and other basic workplace protections.

The COVID-19 response has created an economic crisis that is having unequal impacts. Women are far more likely to work in precarious jobs and have borne the brunt of layoffs and lost work hours. Most alarmingly, intimate partner violence has spiked during the COVID-19 crisis, leaving women potentially trapped in their homes with abusive partners. Women also continue to do the majority of unpaid care and domestic work, which has increased with the closure of schools, child care centres and respite centres.

Organizing for equity

Well before this crisis hit, CUPE members were advocating for equitable compensation in sectors at the heart of the pandemic response. Our union has pushed to end the undervaluing of work in female-dominated sectors and challenged the pay discrimination that many workers also face because of their race, ethnicity, disability, gender identity and other grounds prohibited by human rights law. We have also advocated for intimate partner violence to be recognized as a serious workplace health and safety issue. The COVID-19 crisis shines a light on how crucial our advocacy continues to be.

CUPE has a long history of fighting for the human rights of workers who are marginalized by forms of oppression like racism, colonization, ableism, homophobia and transphobia. Workers who are Black and racialized, Indigenous, LGBTQ2+ or who have disabilities are more likely to be struggling in the face of the global pandemic.

Marginalized workers at risk

Marginalized workers are already at greater risk of experiencing workplace violence and harassment, and research shows that violence and harassment spikes during times of crisis. Anti-Asian racism has increased across Canada and globally. Elected officials at home and abroad have been part of this spike of racism towards the Asian population, much like what transpired during the SARS pandemic.

Black, racialized and Indigenous communities, already at risk for oversurveillance, are at even greater risk as governments increase policing, hate groups incite violence, and everyday microaggressions and racial profiling intensify.

People from equity-seeking groups are also at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 because of long-standing structural and societal inequality, including lack of access to basic services, decent jobs and living wages. In Indigenous communities, the lasting impact of colonialism and the chronic underfunding of services and infrastructure threaten to turn the COVID-19 crisis into a disaster. CUPE joins with groups across Canada calling on governments to collect much-needed race-based and other demographic data about the impact of COVID-19, and to use an intersectional gender-responsive approach in emergency measures and post-pandemic recovery planning. We have also joined with others to call for human rights oversight of government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Solidarity for a better future

CUPE has welcomed the federal government’s progress in providing income supports to workers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the government’s emergency investments in sectors supporting at-risk communities, like women’s shelters and services for people who are homeless. More needs to be done now, and as we move forward, to advance equity. CUPE will push to ensure post-pandemic measures invest in public services and improve the social determinants of health like income security, housing, health care and freedom from prejudice, discrimination, racism and violence.

The tragedy in long-term care homes shows how important decent working conditions are to the quality of care. In British Columbia, the government has taken an important step forward in a sector where racialized women are overrepresented. Long-term care workers have been switched to work at single facilities at good union wages. Staff who previously worked in multiple job sites, are now able to work their equivalent total hours in a single workplace.

Every day, we see examples of people stepping up to care for each other. Marginalized communities have a long history of mutual support, and that resourcefulness, creativity and resilience are clear today. Solidarity is how we’ll get through the pandemic. And it must be the foundation of our work to build a better, more equitable society where discrimination and hatred have no place.