Fruit picking in British-Columbia : a precarious job
Whether in Okanagan’s valley or elsewhere, the world of fruit picking is a unique one and particularly difficult to deal with as workers. Be it by car, hitchiking, by plane or by bus, every year hundreds of Quebecers and other people from different places travel from coast to coast to do this precarious work.
Paid by yield, fruit picking is hard work, demanding of us that we deal with so many aspects that have a direct impact on our salary.
Since our pay depends only on how fast we work, we are dependent on the quality of the trees’ maintenance, on weather conditions and on the quality of the orchard’s management (sadly often mediocre).
In addition for having to subjugate ourselves to the boss’ harassment regarding our legal status, nationality, gender and sexual orientation or our looks and life habits, we drain ourselves by working many days (or nights) in a row. Unless it rains, there are no holidays during picking season.
Since a majority of pickers come from elsewhere, our quality of life during the work period is determined by the goodwill of our employers, who are responsible of accommodating us with decent camping installations. However, there are frequently dozens (even hundreds) of pickers that need to share an absurdly small kitchen, overflowing chemical toilets, disgusting showers and, generally speaking, degrading conditions.
Finally, at the end of our contract, it is still possible for our employer to downright decide not to pay us for our hard work.
Difficult working conditions
Let me introduce myself: my name is Luciano and, like every summer for the past 10 years, I traveled to Western Canada. Not for a vacation, or practice rumba, but to work and try to earn a living. During the month of August, I went back to an orchard I’ve already worked at in the past. I had never had any problem with my employers before. Everything was all right. I felt privileged to be able to work at this orchard instead of a more ”hardcore” one like Dhaliwal, Smagh or OPL (Orchard Pros Logistic Inc), where it is well known that employees are treated badly.
I arrived at Creston in British-Colombia around the 20th of July to work for Shukin, the orchard in question. I worked there for 18 consecutive days before being on my way. At the end of our last work day, the boss’ secretary gave postdated checks to some of us who absolutely needed to leave the same day. I took mine without any worries at all (since I trusted them) and left the same day to make my way toward Kelowna for another contract starting the next morning.
A few days had passed before I deposited my check in my bank account. It was only a week afterwards that I became aware that my check had bounced back because of missing funds. At that moment, I didn’t worry too much : I told myself that it was just a bank error and that everything would return to normal. But then a second and a third week passed and nothing changed. At that point, I started calling my old boss to know when it would be possible to get paid. I can’t count how many vocal messages, text messages and emails I sent him. To this day, I still have not received any word back. Not even a little something saying ”hi” or ”we’re sorry about the situation”.
The summer had come to an end and I came back to Quebec. At my arrival, I wanted to do an unemployment claim, but then I learned that I was missing hours on my employment record. So, I wanted to contact my boss’ accountant, but again I hit a wall. No answer. Thanks to a friend of mine who was a crewboss when I was working for Shukin, I could now claim some of my missing hours. But there are still many hours missing today. Obviously, I didn’t get any help from the employment insurance bureau. All they did was repeating to me that it was my responsibility to make sure that all my hours were declared and that they can’t do anything for me.
Today, as of the 2th of February, more than 5 months later after the end of my contract at Shukin, and I am still running after my paycheck. They owe me over a few thousand dollars.
Because of those profiteers/exploiters, my life plans have drastically changed. I had to put all my projects on hold to find a financial solution. Not only does it put me in a stressed and anxious state to not know if I’ll ever see my money, but it also crushes the hopes I had of finally be able to find my way out of this precarious job.
Knowing that I have a ”legal” status (since I have my Canadian citizenship), I can’t even begin to imagine what my immigrant brothers and sisters have to endure, having to deal with the same daily injustices and with access to even less recourse. This is the way that we treat agricultural labor. They are exploited and thrown away when the job is done. I feel an instant rage rise within me when I hear the words boss, work, pay… I suppose it’s trauma!
If I’ve decided to share my story, it is not so that you can pity me, but instead to make this information available to everyone. If there are other comrades who find themselves in such a horrendous situation, I hope they will do the same. We need to talk about it and denounce these employers who exploit us in BC’s orchards, especially knowing that Shukin orchard is a popular one and attended by a lot of Quebecers. Share this letter in your networks!
Lets unite together in solidary for all of our comrades that are abused by their bosses on a daily basis. Together, let’s make our voices heard. Let’s put a stop to our exploitation, put pressure on them. Let’s react! Let’s not keep anything quiet.
Only solidarity unionism can change our work conditions and put our bosses in their place.