The colour of food

A historical photo essay

On April 10, 1983, the legendary union leader Cesar Chavez, founder and then president of the United Farm Workers of America (centre left), joined Canadian Farmworkers Union founding president Raj Chouhan (centre right) and 350 farm workers in a march and rally in downtown Vancouver. The streets echoed with their demand that farm workers be covered by pesticide health and safety regulations in British Columbia.

Farm workers and their unions have always been at the forefront of the battle to reduce the toxic pesticides served on our fruits and vegetables. In the early days of the environmental movement inspired by Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring and Cesar Chavez’s farm workers’ organizing campaigns, working class concerns around food production and nutrition for poor people were central issues in the new discourse. Farm workers fought for environmental food standards before most consumers were aware of the concept of organic food.

Yet today, many food activists seem concerned solely about directly supporting their local farmer, with farm workers’ conditions absent from the seasonal garden tour map.

The reality is that, in 2011, Mexican farm workers on temporary work permits and South Asian immigrants are doing most of the work in B.C.’s fields. The local food movement and its “100-mile diet” have yet to come to terms with the working class reality of global migration that sees people of colour imported from thousands of miles away to pick our local food.

The power of farm workers to make improvements in their health and safety has long been resisted by farm owners and government policies that favour farmers and corporate agricultural profits.

In early 1983, the B.C. Human Rights Commission described the abysmal working and living conditions of farm workers in the province as the result of systemic discrimination applied through legislative racism.

Shortly after, the B.C. coroner announced the verdict of an inquest into the pesticide-poisoning death of farm worker Jarnail Singh Deol. The jury found Deol’s death was a preventable homicide and made recommendations for farm workers to be included under pesticide health and safety regulations – a right other B.C. workers had taken for granted since 1917. It was not until 1993 that health and safety regulations were extended to agricultural workers – a change that was driven by the Canadian Farmworkers Union and the broad social movement that rallied workers and consumers in support of justice for farm workers.

In a punitive move a decade later, in 2003, a new B.C. Liberal government denied basic employment standard laws to farm workers and rolled back the hard-won rights of hourly paid farm workers to earn statutory holiday pay, a minimum crop rate or overtime pay.

In 2007, three women were killed near Abbotsford in the crash of an overcrowded farm labour van. In 2008, three farm workers died and two were brain injured following exposure to lethal gases on a Langley mushroom farm.

Sustainability is a hollow concept unless it sustains the whole community. Jobs with justice should be a key focus of organic and local food movements that often ignore the farm workers at the bottom of this food chain.

Backaching work: two fieldworkers stoop and bend over all day, topping brussels sprout suckers on a farm near Aldergrove, B.C. Immigrant South Asian women and the elderly are the majority of seasonal farm workers in the Fraser Valley – then and now.

Hauling and dumping brussels sprouts into the grower’s processing bin.

A farm worker has her daily piecework card punched by the labour contractor during brussels sprout harvest. Fieldwork harvesting is usually paid at piece rates, and not hourly wages. This often results in many fieldworkers receiving less than a minimum wage. As well, labour contractors take their cut of 20 to 30 per cent of the farm workers’ wages for providing transportation to the fields.

On May 27, 1984, eleven women mushroom pickers were fired at Hoss Farm near Langley, B.C. – five for signing Canadian Farmworkers Union cards and six more who then approached the South Asian grower about his actions. The fired women brought their children with them to the picket line and for days shouted “Prani picker vipislo” (All pickers back to work!).

Sakhdarshanpar Machi, Jasbir Kaur Sagoo and Jasweer Kaur Brar (left to right), all new union members on picket duty along the isolated rural road leading to Hoss’s mushroom farm. The women had had enough of the poor working conditions that were typical for many mushroom workers in the Fraser Valley. This included working up to 15 hours per day with no overtime pay, being paid at piece rates that amount to less than minimum wage, no bathrooms or cleaning facilities, and dismissal for union activity. Some 30 years later, many farm workers continue to experience these exploitative working conditions.

After three days of picketing at the remote farm, the women farm workers set up a secondary picket line at the Fraser Valley Mushroom Growers’ Co-operative, which packaged mushrooms under the brand name Money’s Mushrooms. The co-op warehouse workers who processed the mushrooms, members of the Retail Wholesale Union, refused to cross the picket line. The plant shut down and the distribution and sale of mushrooms in retail stores came to a standstill across British Columbia. The pressure exerted by the picket line and media exposure prompted the grower to hire back seven of the fired workers immediately. The following year, the Labour Relations Board ruled the remaining five workers must be rehired with back pay. Shortly thereafter, B.C.’s Social Credit government banned secondary picketing – a prohibition that continues to this day.

A volunteer tutor teaches English to a farm worker in her south Vancouver home. The Canadian Farmworkers Union recognized that one of the major stumbling blocks for many new immigrant women farm workers was not being able to speak and understand English. In 1983, the union launched the Farmworkers E.S.L. Crusade – A Time to Learn, A Time to Grow – which focused on the practical English that workers needed to learn for their jobs, such as the handling of pesticides. The students were mainly women, and they showed a great desire to learn English but were reluctant to leave their homes for classes – due to a lack of time available between the double duty of farm work and housework.

On April 10, 1983, farm worker and Canadian Farmworkers Union executive member Pritam Kaur and her friends rally with 350 farm workers in Robson Square, Vancouver, protesting the exclusion of farm workers from pesticide health and safety regulations.

These are selected photos from a larger exhibition A Time to Change: South Asian Farmworkers in the Fraser Valley, British Columbia recently seen at the new W2: Community Media Arts centre in Vancouver. See more photos in the Simon Fraser University Library’s Special Collections Archive:

Craig Berggold is a media artist and photographer. His films and videos have been broadcast on television and exhibited in festivals, art galleries and cinemas around the world.

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