On July 17, 1979, the Farmworkers Organizing Committee mobilized its first direct action picket line with nearly 200 farmworkers at Mukhtiar Growers in Clearbrook, BC. The workers had not been paid their back-wages for six weeks. “Contacted by some farmworkers who convinced others to stay out and with the support of FWOC members, Mukhtiar paid $80,000 in wages on the spot,” after two hours of negotiations. Workers went back to work after they received their cheques. The FWOC’s first major victory was reported in the local, national and provincial press and TV. Image Photos-020, Canadian Farmworkers Union Collection, Simon Fraser University Library.
The CFU had been certified to represent the workers at Jensen Mushroom Farm in the Fraser Valley on July 18, 1980. Most of the workers had not had a wage increase since October 1978. The strike at Jensen’s began in April 1981.  After many months of maintaining a 24 hour picket line, Jensen completely stopped production and put his farm for sale. “Initially Jensen maintained production as 10 workers scabbed. The line was subjected to various forms of violence from name calling, to car pounding, to a physical scuffle, to telephone wires being cut, to trucks being chased at high speeds, to an attempt to burn down the trailer while a picketer was sleeping inside.” Image Photos-139, Canadian Farmworkers Union Collection, Simon Fraser University Library.

In the meantime, tragedy swept the growing fields. Sukhdeep Madhar, a seven month-old baby, drowned when she rolled off a small bunkbed into a large bucket of drinking water in the converted horse stall used to accommodate her family. The farm owner had provided no running water.

Barely a week later, three young boys, left to play by themselves while their parents picked berries, drowned in a nearby abandoned gravel pit. The deaths shocked British Columbians. Decrying the “horror” of living conditions on the farm, a coroner’s inquest into the infant death called for immediate inspections of all agricultural accommodation in the province.

For the families of the three drowned boys, the CFU helped win $30,000 in damages from the gravel-pit owner. The union pressed forward with demonstrations, public meetings and well researched briefs, backed by a supportive media and public.

With no comprehensive regulations or mandatory training in place, nineteen-year-old farm worker Jarnail Singh Deol died of pesticide poisoning.

When a coroner’s jury ruled the death of Deol was ‘preventable homocide’ and said the government was partly responsible, the Social Credit government announced WCB coverage would be extended to agricultural workers effective April 4, 1983. They reneged on that commitment just before that spring’s election campaign. Raj Chouhan lambasted the turnabout as the government’s “most dishonest betrayal.”

Farmworkers would have to wait until 1993 before they were brought under the same health and safety umbrella as other BC workers.

“Jarnail’s death stands as a monument to government inaction,” raged the usually even-tempered Chouhan. “To those who demand patience, to those who are tired of our voices shouting for equality, we say, ‘No more deaths! No more watching our young people die!’” CFU Organizers Raj Chouhan and Judy Cavanaugh, Image Photos-017, Craig Berggold photo, Canadian Farmworkers Union Collection, Simon Fraser University Library.


The CFU fought hard to bring farmworkers the protection of a union contract. Bell Farms in Richmond was one of the few growers to accept the union. Covering ten full-time and thirty seasonal employees, the CFU contract at Bell Farms prescribed a forty-hour week, benefits and improved wages. A union hiring hall replaced the use of labour contractors. EPH0484-001/-002. Canadian Farmworkers Union Collection, Simon Fraser University Library.
On May 27, 1984, eleven women mushroom pickers were fired at Hoss Farm; five for signing Canadian Farmworkers’ Union cards and six more who then approached the grower about his actions. “I feel good about the picket line, because we are fighting,” said Jasweer Kaur Brar. Their poor working conditions were typical for many mushroom workers. This included working up to 15 hours per day with no overtime, piece rates of $2-$3 an hour (far less than minimum wage), no bathrooms or cleaning facilities, and dismissal for union activity. Craig Berggold photo, Image Photos-047, Canadian Farmworkers Union Collection, Simon Fraser University Library.


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Union Zindabad! Copyright © 2022 by BC Labour Heritage Centre is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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