Labor

Northern fallout from the grape boycott

Thomas Hopkins September 17 1979
Labor

Northern fallout from the grape boycott

Thomas Hopkins September 17 1979

Northern fallout from the grape boycott

Labor

Some 75 men and women march in the flat British Columbia sunlight. A woman with a megaphone shouts a slogan, the marchers respond. Television cameramen scurry backward, sound men running interference. It is a scene, in its own polite way, that parallels the media-drenched campaign of California’s United Farm Workers (UFW). Symbolized by the chiselled face of Cesar Chavez, the UFW won the right to form a union to negotiate with California fruit and vegetable growers in 1972. But B.C.’s Chavez is a mild East Indian named Raj Chouhan and the farm workers are mainly from the Punjab, not Juárez. Rather than the lush valleys around Salinas or Bakersfield, the backdrop for this dispute is the gentle scoop of the lower Fraser Valley, stretching east from Vancouver. Chouhan, 30, is the president of the Farm Workers Organizing Committee (FWOC), whose sole reason for existence is to bring about Canada’s first union of field workers.*

This is not The Grapes of Wrath. There are no club-wielding thugs, no violence. The eight-month-old FWOC wants to unionize the workers peaceably, grower by grower, starting with the 150 or so farms in the verdant lower Fraser Valley. Even their friends,

*The spectre of field hands charging overtime during the peak of harvest and going on strike just as the blueberries ripen causes farmers nightmares. “It would be the ruination of the industry, ”says one of the directors of the B.C. Federation of Agriculture John Savage. There are an estimated 1^0,000 full-time and 100,000 part-time farm workers across Canada.

though, admit the battle will be protracted and perhaps even futile given the volatile turnover rate of the valley’s 7,000 farm workers and the lack of an industry centralization.

FWOC complaints include: overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in laborer camps on the farms; no water or shade in the fields; piecework wages

that average less than the province’s minimum wage ($3 per hour); 14-hour days; shoehorning of 30 workers into a labor contractor’s van designed for 12; and the withholding of wages by contractors. As with most Canadian farm workers, they are not protected by provincial minimum-wage or working-condition legislation. The five-year-old Canada Farm Labor Pool, a federally funded agency which was pioneered in the valley, has attempted to mediate improvements but has been hobbled by budget cutbacks and lack of enforcement muscle. Although farmers shoulder some of the blame (“Conditions in some farm camps are really bad,” says Abbotsford community-worker John Borst), most accusing fingers point to farm-labor contractors who supply farmers with field workers and collect and distribute wages.

Largely East Indian, the worst of the contractors manipulate the workers— mainly women, many of them recent immigrants—involving them in an almost feudal protective relationship that preys on their ignorance of Canadian laws and their lack of proficiency in English. For their part, growers don’t question the existence of abuses and are willing to consider minimum wages, licensing of contractors and other measures short of a union. Says Oscar Austring, onetime blueberry farmer and now a director of the B.C. Federation of Agriculture: “We’ll look at almost anything as long as it lets growers stay competitive.” Chouhan says farmers can stay competitive by paying the 75 cents or so an hour that now go to the contractor, directly to the worker. The FWOC proposes to transport pickers to the fields via farmer-subsidized buses and assume the role of contractor.

Chouhan also accuses B.C. Labor Minister Allan Williams of politicking with his spring promise to introduce legislation to protect farm workers from exploitation in the next session. No legislation was introduced in B.C.’s short summer session but Williams promised a bill in the next session and says he plans to meet with California officials on that state’s handling of the contractor issue.

The most potent obstacle for Chouhan and his would-be union, however, is mechanization. One raspberry-picking machine can replace 60 handpickers. Critics fear union talk will speed the inevitable advance of mechanization. Chouhan is unmoved, saying the farmers have mechanized as far as they can. He emphasizes that he and his 15member committee have signed up 1,000 workers already, in arduous weekends of door-knocking. “It will be long,” he says, in his best tone of union solidarity, “but we will win.” He may have to hurry. Thomas Hopkins