UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Resistance to exploitation : East Indians and the rise of the Canadian Farmworkers Union in B.C. Jhappan, Carol R.


British Columbia has an undistinguished history of racial discrimination against ethnic minorities, most notably against "Asiatics", such as the Chinese, the Japanese and East Indians. Members of these "visible" minorities were allowed into the province in the past as cheap labour, often with the proviso that they enter designated occupations. These occupations were usually the low-status, low-paying jobs spurned by whites, such as domestic service and farmwork. "Asiatics" were systematically denied the opportunity to participate in the political sphere by Acts of disfranchisement, which in turn prohibited access to certain potentially powerful positions. Discrimination by statute was both blatant and intentional, and there is little doubt that the law sanctioned public animosity towards non-white minorities. One particularly subordinated sector of the work force was (and is) agricultural labour. Farmworkers are a minority both numerically and in that approximately ninety per cent of them in B.C. are of East Indian origin. As a group they have never enjoyed the benefits of protective labour legislation afforded other B.C. workers. Discrimination against farmworkers has taken the forms, either of omission from certain acts, or outright exclusion from protective provisions. Farmworkers have, until recently, been denied the right to unionize, as well as the coverage of minimum wages, Workers' Compensation and statutory safety regulations for farms, despite the fact that farmwork is the third most dangerous occupation in Canada. In 1979, a Farmworkers Organizing Committee was formed, which later became the Canadian Farmworkers Union. The C.F.U. represents a response to legislative discrimination, and its purpose is to fight for the rights and dignity of farmworkers. The strategies employed by the Union in pursuit of its goals have been those of a resource-poor minority, and are aimed at securing benefits for farmworkers comparable to those of other B.C. workers. This thesis is the story of that struggle. It is a struggle against injustice, inequality and exploitation. The thesis explores the grievances of B.C.'s farmworkers and analyses the tactics utilized by the C.F.U. The argument presented, however, maintains that although the Union has enjoyed some success in its attempts to eliminate discrimination, it has been partially pre-empted by the Social Credit government's Employment Standards Act of 1980. Further, the (limited) degree of success has, to an extent, obviated the basis of the C.F.U.'s continued struggle. The Union is currently at a political cross-roads, whereby its survival is threatened by the dual problems of a critical financial situation and a depleting membership, and not least by the unconcealed anti-unionism of the present Social Credit government and the resistance of the farmers' B.C. Federation of Agriculture. Because the C.F.U. is unparalleled in Canada, and because it is relatively new, little literature exists which is specifically related to the issue. Therefore, the primary research presented here is based primarily on interviews with individuals concerned in one way or another with the farmwork issue. They included members of and workers for the C.F.U., lawyers, trade unionists, politicians, bureaucrats, farmers, contractors and farmworkers. Where portrayals of the 'facts' differed, I have recorded the range of opinion (where numbers warranted), and where information was corroborated by newspaper reports or other written sources, I have quoted those sources for easy reference. Another major source of information was that provided by various written submissions (for example, recommendations and briefs) to the government and to the Human Rights Commission, as well as occasional informal papers written by concerned individuals.

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