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August 28, 2017

Farm Workers and Canadian Injustice

by Robin Wylie

Farm Workers

Farm Workers in Western Canada: Injustice and Activism. Edited by Shirley A. McDonald and Bob Barnetson. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2016. 256pp., $29.95, paperback, ISBN 978-1-77212-138-4.

Farmers do not work alone. They rely on unpaid family labour and paid labour. As of the 2011 census, the majority of Canadian farmers report using wage labour. This is a growing component of farm labour budgets as farms consolidate and grow in value and cash receipts.

Yet agricultural wage labour has historically been unregulated. In defending the family farm, and in an industry notorious for cost squeezes, governments have exempted farmers from fair wage laws, workmen’s compensation, and health and safety standards. The result is that farming is one of the most dangerous occupations, especially in the use of child labour. Farm workers were also banned from economic organization. It is as one activist puts it, “Canada’s last lawless frontier (p.40).”

It is also a sector notorious for its use of ‘racialized’ labour. That is, in Western Canada, as shown by the various authors of this study, aboriginal, Asian and now Latin American workers have been used as a casual, and disposable, cheap labour force enforced by government mechanisms such as first nation treaties, discriminatory immigration laws, war internment, and, today, temporary foreign worker programs.

This collection of nine essays is a stinging indictment of this tradition of small capitalist, state sanctioned, exploitation. And it is a call to action for the extension of full human and labour relations rights for rural wage workers.

The book’s various authors are motivated by the studied indifference of Canada’s most conservative province, Alberta. This may, remarkably, be reversed with the 2015 election of a social democratic government, the New Democratic Party (NDP), who have introduced a bill extending labour protections to farm workers (Bill 6).

Farm Workers opens in a powerful manner with a statistical and historical survey of the role and exploitation of farm workers in Alberta by Bob Barneston and is complemented by a searing interview by Shirley McDonald with Darlene Dunlop, one of the co-founders of the Farmworkers Union of Alberta (FUA). Dunlop describes in vivid detail the risks, from toxic chemicals to personal violence; they and others face in doing paid farm work. Other risks include wage fraud and the murder of one worker for having damaged a piece of farm equipment – a murder initially punished by an 18 month prison sentence.

Two essays look at the use of temporary foreign workers in the meat packing industry in Alberta and Manitoba as examples of how urban unionized workplaces were ‘externalized’ to rural centres using insecure immigrants, like Africans and Latin Americans, who have been pitted against each other to keep costs down and prevent union organization. However, after a violent struggle in Brooks, Alberta, the United Food and Commercial Workers re-established itself and, in the case of Manitoba where there was an NDP government, won contracts that improved wages, protections, and offered a path to full citizenship.

Two other essays examine the specialized truck farming systems of British Columbia, the Fraser and Okanagan Valleys where internal migrants predominated, whether the Punjabi Sikh community of Vancouver or Quebecois youth. In 2004 BC farm operators joined the national temporary foreign worker programs to use insecure Latin Americans (more motivated and productive seasonal workers), while also projecting a youthful ‘white face’ to the new winery tourism industry (P. Tomic and R. Trumper). Racial oppression, both essays argue, has always been a prominent feature of Pacific coast farming.

In ‘Farming the Constitution’, J. Koshan, a University of Calgary law professor, led a legal project to examine whether farm workers had, in the absence of political and union power, a judicial path to justice. After examining Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the team argues there is a strong case that the historical exclusions of farm workers from legal protections and citizenship rights can be successfully fought. But relying on a legal path may come with its own perils – in limiting economic self-organization.

Two essays, one studying written memoirs about rural Alberta and another about farm owners working off the farm don’t quite work. Ironically, what owner historical reflections reveal is the invisibility of rural wage workers, of an assumed inferiority legitimizing exclusion.

The question of owner-operators and family labour raises a vital question about farm labour budgets, but doesn’t quite fit the collection’s focus. Still, it is important to recognize that the unpaid family portion of farm labour is the single most important labour factor – and generates enormous tensions. I remember how resentful my agricultural history (male) students were about marriage law reform in Saskatchewan prescribing the equitable division of farm assets.

This is a good book addressing one of rural Canada’s, and Canada’s, unresolved economic and social justice questions.