By Anu Sahota
On March 7, 2007, a crash on the Trans-Canada highway near Abbotsford, B.C. killed 3 Indo-Canadian farmworkers and injured a dozen other passengers (who ranged from teenagers to seniors). The overloaded van was on its way to a greenhouse in the Fraser Valley community of Chilliwack. It was (as almost all vans transporting farmworkers from home to work are) owned by a contractor and the deaths and injuries were attributed to the van's seats having been taken out and replaced with wooden benches. This particular employer was not unusual in having endangered so many lives as there is a long history in British Columbia (and the rest of Canada) of farmworker abuse by contractors and farm owners. Equally as long is the record of attempts to correct these injustices through labour activism.
Farmworkers are often referred to as Canada's forgotten workers, and certainly this is doubly so in the case of immigrant and migrant workers. A disproportionate number of the farmworkers in British Columbia's Fraser Valley are Indo-Canadian and many of them are from the Punjab, India's most fertile farming region. Countless Indo-Canadian immigrants have laboured in farms since Sikhs first arrived in B.C. in 1904. This is partly attributable to an established cultural knowledge of farming practices, though more so because opportunities for visible minority immigrants were, for a long time, limited to agricultural work such as farming and forestry. For many non-English speaking immigrants, farmwork generates critical cultural and social connections - connections which have often been essential to surviving working conditions. The changes to the Immigration Act which I wrote about last week meant that by the late 1970s, immigrants from India were arriving to Canada in record numbers - and the number of Indo-Canadian farmworkers in the Fraser Valley increased from less than 500 in 1970 to over 5000 in 1978.
Motivated by the success of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in California, the Canadian Farmworkers Union was established in 1980 with the aim of abolishing the contract labour system, a system which many believed perpetuated worker abuse. The list of grievances against the farming industry and provincial regulators was (and still is) lengthy: a need for minimum-wage and maximum hours rules; an end to discriminatory Unemployment Insurance regulations; laws to ensure overtime and statutory holiday pay; inspection of farm vehicles and equipment; access to a complaints process; protection against pesticides and so on. At the time the union was founded, allegations of physical and sexual abuse by contractors was not uncommon and the need for daycare was brought home by the deaths of several farmworkers' children. The Indian documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan documented these tragedies and the union's formation in his 1982 film A Time to Rise
It was incidents like these and countless others that prompted Ujjal Dosanjh to establish the Farm Workers' Legal Information Service for janitorial, domestic and farmworkers in the 1970s and to become a founding member, along with Charan Gill, of the Canadian Farmworkers Union. Now a Member of Parliament for Vancouver South, Dosanjh was a lawyer at the time and was deeply involved with immigrant rights and services. In the following clips from an August 1983 segment on CBC Television's The Canadians, host Paul Winn reflects on Indo-Canadian history and speaks with Mr. Donsanjh and his wife Raminder about their involvement in immigrant issues as well as their own experiences as visible minorities in Canada.
For more information on farmworkers rights and issues, you can visit the B.C. Federation of Labour website
A detailed history of the Canadian Farmworkers Union was written about in the 1995 publication ZINDABAD! and is available online .
Sadly, accidents and deaths involving workers have continued and comprehensive legislation to protect their rights remains outstanding. In 2001, the B.C. government rescinded regulations enforcing inspections of farms and farm vehicles, as well as minimum-wage rules. In 2003, it excluded farmworkers from new labour laws outlining minimum and maximum work pay along with statutory holiday pay. Following the March 2007 deaths, British Columbia put forward new regulations to ensure increased vehicle safety for workers traveling to and from farms.