A History of The Canadian Farmworkers' Union
"Farmworkers are Canada's forgotten workers. They work in the fields and harvest the crops that feed us. They work in slave-like conditions for 12-14 hours a day and are paid piece rate. They travel in overcrowded buses to the fields or live in converted chicken coops. Many suffer chronic health problems because of exposure to pesticides during every working day." - CFU spokesman Charan Gill, June, 1994
When farmworkers in British Columbia's fertile Fraser Valley started organizing in the 1970s, the main issues were low pay, poor housing, unsafe working conditions, exclusion from labour and safety legislation, lack of childcare and racial discrimination. Those are still the major issues today for the 28,000 workers in the fields.
Just outside Vancouver, considered one of the world's "most livable" cities, farmworkers, mostly immigrants from Punjab, India, and most of those women, work long hours in the open fields harvesting the food we eat. They work in the third most hazardous industry in the province, behind logging and mining. The mortality rate is seven times higher than in the manufacturing sector.
For their labours they are rented "living quarters" in converted cattle barns and decrepit trailers, sometimes without potable water or indoor toilets, they pay unscrupulous labour contractors as much as 40% of their meager wages and they are exposed to unguarded machinery and toxic pesticides.
Many are forced to bring their children with them to the fields because they can't afford daycare. They are often not paid for their piece work until the end of the growing season. They are considered second-class workers, and as immigrants of colour, are often considered second-class citizens as well.
The struggle to organize these workers and improve conditions has met with open opposition from the growers and contractors, from anti-union provincial and federal governments. Since the founding of the Canadian Farmworkers Union in 1980, the objectives have remained the same: to abolish the contract labour system, to introduce minimum wage and maximum hours of work for farmworkers, to end discriminatory Unemployment Insurance regulations, to introduce and enforce protection against exposure to pesticides and dangerous machinery and to get daycare for the children of farmworkers.
With cries of Zindabad! (Long Live!) they launched their attack on several fronts: at the governments to change Unemployment Insurance, health and safety and Workers' Compensation Board legislation, certifications and negotiations to get contracts at farms, English as a Second Language Crusades to give new immigrants the tools to fight indifference, intolerance and injustice.
In 1982, The Vancouver Sun newspaper warned that we should "hold the champagne, that a succession of Canadian commissions and boards of inquiry stretching back to 1913 has consistently recommended that farmworkers be protected" and that "at this breathless pace, farmworkers could achieve full equality before the law by the beginning of the 21st century."
Twenty years later, with the 21st Century upon us, the struggle for that equality continues...