An eyewitness account of their plight

B.C. Farmworkers:

The McGill Daily
Monday, September 22,1980

On August 23rd in the Fraser Valley, B.C. a seven month old East Indian child drowned in a bucket of water. The bucket was the drinking water supply for one of sixteen families inhabiting a converted barn on a fruit farm. The death sparked an inquest into the living conditions of immigrant farm labouring families in the fruit belt. The media had begun to cover such issues since April 6, 1980 when the B.C. farmworkers formed the first farmworkers’ union in the country, the Canadian Farm workers’ Union (CFU). For the first time in fifteen years the plight of the Fraser Valley’s 10,000 East Indian and Chinese farmworkers came into the public eye.

Anand Patwardhan is a filmmaker and a student at McGill. His best-known film Prisoners of Conscience, which portrays the repressive nature of the Indira Gandhi regime, both before and during the Emergency in India, has been distributed internationally.

Patwardhan spent the summer, making a film about B.C.’s farmworkers. The following narrative is an account of his observations during the past two months.

It is 5 a.m. and raining mildly. We are at Pritam Kaur’s home in East Vancouver — a two-room basement with no access to the sun, for which she pays more than a third of her four to five thousand dollar annual income as a farmworker.

We are an unlikely gathering here this morning. Martin (cameraman) Nettie (sound recordist) and Jim (co-director) speak in English. I speak in Hindi. Pritam and her son Sarwan who have just woken up, speak mainly in Punjabi with occasional Hindi and English words thrown in. They understand me and I them.They know that we are making a film on the condition of farmworkers and that we support the Canadian Farmworkers Union which has recently been formed, so they are eager to speak out to us of their hardships. The day has already begun for them. Sarwan is getting ready to go to work in a sawmill. He is separated and his 5-year old son Neki will go to the fields with Pritam as they have no baby-sitter. Pritam’s work day begins earliest of all. She is preparing lunch and dinner for the family at the same time, for when she returns at 9 p.m. tonight she will be too exhausted to do anything but eat and sleep. Sarwan whose job at the sawmill is a comparatively lighter one, does not seem to help with the housework, which he probably considers to be the task of women.

Pritam is one of the fastest pickers on the work force in the Fraser Valley. Proudly she displays to us a card with many holes punched in it. Yesterday she picked a record 31 flats in one 11-hour stretch earning $69 at $2.25 per flat. For every flat she filled, Joginder the labour contractor whose main job is to transport her and other workers in his van, earned 75c. Yesterday he garnered $23 from Pritam’s toils alone let alone the fifty other workers he also transported. Pritam beams a smile at us, “They (the farmers and contractors) prefer employing us over white workers, because we are much faster.”

It is the peak season now and this year the berry crop has been excellent. Temporarily the pickings are good. Soon however, the crop will thin out, and even Pritam will be lucky to pick more than 10 f lats’a day. Slower pickers will not be brought to work at all. This season with some luck, working seven days a week, 9 to 11 hours a day, Pritam will have earned about the minimum wage. Many other workers will average not morethan $1.50 an hour.

” Do you enjoy farmwork?” She looks at me incredulously. “Look at my ankles. See the swelling. My back is in pain. I take headache pills. That is what farmwork is about. If only I had known when I was still in India that Canada meant just another field to work in…”

We are at the house of Jwala Singh Grewal. With his white turban, white beard and imposing figure he looks a little like the calendar picture of Guru Nanak (religious leader of the Sikhs) which hangs from’ his wall. He too speaks only Punjabi, but understands Hindi. At 65 years of age, he is still a farmworker and vice-president of the Canadian Farmworkers’ Union (CFU). We go to the back of the house where last night, vandals smashed Jwala’s parked car. They sliced open the tires and threw empty beer bottles through the windows of his house.

” I never had enemies. People in the community have always been respectful. But now the union has vicious opponents. They phoned Raj (President of the CFU) and Charan (Secretary) and threatened to kill them if they continued working for the union. They smashed the windows of our office. Now this. But we don’t scare so easily. Next time they come, I’ll be ready for them. White farmers exploiting us to make a profit, at least that sounds plausible. But these contractors — they are the real scum. They exploit their own kind. I suppose the colour is not what counts. Big fish will always eat small fish.”

We are driving by the farms in the Okanagan where an organizer from the CFU has been sent to make initial contacts with the workers. In the distance we spot a worker, a young Chinese boy spraying peach saplings with a hand-held spray pump. The CFU organizer calls out to him. “What are you spraying?”

” I don’t know,” he replies. He wears no mask, and the spray is being blown back in his face. The CFU organizer explains the dangers of pesticide and cautions the worker to insist on being supplied a mask by his employer.

We want to film the ramshackle cabins near the fields, in one of which, an infant recently drowned in a pail of water while her mother worked in the fields nearby. These cabins are reputed to be traditionally overcrowded and unhygienic, without drinking water facilities. The farmer bars the way into the cabin. It can only be filmed from the outside. Later, when no one is around, we pick up a quick shot of the inside of an empty cabin.

I am sitting by the roadside a mile away from Jensen’s mushroom farm. Jim, Martin and Nettie are pretending to be a television crew so as to get access onto the farm and interview Jensen. My presence on the crew would make the farmers suspicious. By now Jim and I have developed certain tactics to facilitate our work. He handles the growers and contractors, pretending to be neutral. I talk to the workers, where our partisanship is already known and can only lead to greater intimacy and insight into their conditions.

Ninety percent of the workers at Jensen’s are members of the CFU. The Union has applied for its first certi-
fication. Jensen’s, subsidiary of thegiant Moneys Mushroom cannery, has employed the foremost anti-labour law firm Russell and Dumont to challenge the CFU at the Labour Relations Board (LRB). The union’s case is being argued by volunteer lawyers from the progressive B.C. Law Union.

Jensen is on guard against the media. He will not speak about the union but refers Jim to his lawyers. He does have one comment to make about his workers, however. “If they don’t like it here, they are free to quit.”

It is a day of celebration. The LRB has ruled that the CFU is legally authorized to represent the workers at Jensen’s mushroom farm. The victory is doubly sweet as it has been won jointly by both white and East Indian workers who resisted the management’s efforts to divide them racially.

I have left a victory celebration at home to go to a folk concert. As I return at midnight there is a crowd and an ambulance outside. Sarwan Boal (Treasurer of the CFU) is lying in his blood on the street. He is barely conscious. A fellow organizer describes what happened. Stuart, Terry (white workers from Jensen’s) and Sarwan (all slightly high) were shouting in the street “Long Live the CFU.” Four white youths emerged from a pool hall and attacked Sarwan calling him a “dirty Hindu.” They kicked him in the face with their boots. On being intercepted by Stuart and Terry, they ran away. But before Stuart and Terry could intervene, Sarwan had already been injured. Now Stuart and Terry are in a rage. “They attacked our brother, we are going to kill them.”

Jim is on the scene. He stays behind to pacify Stuart and Terry saying that the police have already arrived and it will do no good to take direct physical action. I follow the ambulance carrying Sarwan to the hospital where he will be discharged the next day with four stitches and a month’s worth of body and head injuries. The film has been forgotten.
We are nearing the very end of our film stock. We have spent all our personal savings, cut all the corners possible, imposed ourselves on all our friends, but the film does not feel complete. We have filmed workers, contractors, growers, union organizers, a public rally addressed by Cesar Chavez in support of the CFU, and many other events but we lack a real climax to end on. Now an opportunity has arisen with plans for a CFU led demonstration at the Clearbrook farming area against the system of contract labour. The Union is demanding that hiring halls replace the parasitic labour contractor.

The weather is bright and sunny, and thmonstration is big. Many members of the CFU have turned out as well as supporters from amongst the labour movement, students, lawyers, even a priest. Though it is a Saturday farmworkers are in the fields working. In the past while many workers have secretly pledged their support to the Union, they have been afraid to come out in public where a farmer or contractor might see them, for fear of losing their jobs. As we pass field after field, shouting slogans “Canadian Farmworkers Union Zin-dabad (Long Live the C.F.U.)” and “Farmworkers Unite and Fight”, they stop work and stand up. They smile. We don’t have permission to stop at any one farm as that would be considered a picket.

Suddenly a roar goes up from the demonstrators up ahead A worker has come out of the fields to join the march. We rush ahead to catch it on film. It is Pritam Kaur. She is dancing and screaming, “The Union is here to stay!” Behind her in the distance, a group of three women and two children are running out of the fields.

Anand Patwardhan