A bitter harvest for immigrant berry pickers

Posted by admin on Apr 19th, 2008

In a lengthy and stinging ruling, judge details near-feudal conditions endured by immigrant workers harvesting produce
ROBERT MATAS From Saturday’s Globe and Mail. April 19, 2008 at 1:02 PM EDT

VANCOUVER — In a stinging 801-page ruling on an employment insurance scam, a federal Tax Court judge says widespread exploitation of Indo-Canadian berry pickers in fields outside Vancouver is reminiscent of scenes from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. “When a 65-year-old grandmother leaves her village in India, travels nearly two days to Vancouver and is hired within a week by a labour contractor who transports her – at dawn and back at night – in a crowded van for up to eight hours a day so she can earn eight hours pay at minimum wage – or less if paid on piece rate – something is radically wrong with certain aspects of the federal family reunification program and also the berry and vegetable industry in British Columbia,” Dwayne Rowe, a Tax Court of Canada judge, stated in a ruling issue this week.

“One of the reasons for enduring such hardship is that the elderly worker, her family and her co-workers have been assured they will receive cheques from the Canadian government during the winter months, provided they obey – absolutely – the dictates of their employers and pay the full amounts of tribute exacted at their discretion during the settling up meeting.”

The lengthy court case involved an appeal by 75 berry pickers against a decision of the federal government to uphold administrative efforts to refuse payment of employment insurance benefits for work done during 1997. The pickers were employed by S & S Harvesting Ltd. in strawberry, raspberry and blueberry fields in the Vancouver region and in the neighbouring Fraser Valley.

The majority of berry pickers working in the Faser Valley are casual, immigrant employees and vulnerable to exploitation.

The federal government maintained that the pickers had not worked as much as they claimed in applications for benefits.

Judge Rowe considered the appeals of each of the 75 berry pickers separately. He dismissed the appeal of some of the workers and allowed others, depending on the testimony and documents in each case.

Along the way to reviewing their appeals, Judge Rowe heard graphic tales of exploitation of new immigrants and details of what the judge described as an elaborate employment insurance scam.

The judge was also convinced by the testimony that conditions for the berry pickers had not changed much over the past decade.

The situation continues with new variations and twists, he wrote. Strawberry and raspberry pickers “are restricted to more or less the same dismal earnings as they generated in 1997,” Judge Rowe stated.

Param Grewal, who testified as an expert in labour practices in the local farming industry, said some people bought a work record that would qualify them for employment insurance and did not actually do the job. Some who worked but not long enough to qualify for employment insurance would pay the employer a sum of money in exchange for a suitable working record, the court heard. Some berry pickers worked all season and the only reward for their labour was a work card with sufficient hours to entitle them to employment insurance benefits.

James Walton, an industrial relations officer involved in a review in 1997 of payroll records of 87 licensed and bonded farm labour contractors, told the court that “100 per cent” of the contractors had breached one or more regulations, many of which pertained to the core issue of proper and timely payment of wages.

Mr. Walton characterized the overwhelming majority of payroll records prepared and maintained by labour contractors as “unreliable, inaccurate and not credible, particularly with respect to the number of hours worked during the course of the employment.”

Judge Rowe stated that the scam worked as long as it did in the 75 cases reviewed at the trial because of the “Svengali-like control” that labour contractor Surjit Randhawa of S & S Harvesting had over his employees, all of whom were members of the Indo-Canadian community. “To the majority of them, he was a god-like figure who had to be obeyed, even years later when they no longer had any relationship with him,” the judge wrote.

Judge Rowe makes an unusual direct appeal in his ruling to the government to take actions to protect the vulnerable berry pickers and to consider launching criminal prosecutions. Although he was dealing with civil matters and not a criminal charge, Judge Rowe reminded the government that counselling someone to make a false statement under oath is a criminal offence. He also drew attention to a list of other crimes, including creating false documents, forgery and falsifying employment records.

Judge Rowe estimated that the federal government spent several million dollars on the investigation of the employment insurance scam and the court case. His ruling is one of the longest ever issued by the Tax Court of Canada, a court official said.

Neither the Canada Revenue Agency nor the Department of Justice would comment yesterday on the case. Both sides in the case have until May 16 to decide whether they will appeal. Mr. Randhawa’s labour contracting company, S & S Harvesting, no longer has a phone listing. A phone call to Mr. Randhawa’s current business ended abruptly as soon as a Globe and Mail reporter identified himself.

In their own words

The lives of the berry pickers were described in detail in court:

Bhajan Kaur Badesha

Bhajan Kaur Badesha was 64 when she testified, lived with her husband but did not know her address or telephone number. She did not know her date of birth and was not in good health. She and her husband came to Canada in 1992. She had no education and could not read nor write Punjabi nor English. Shortly after arriving in Canada, she went to work on farms alongside friends and relatives. She said she was picked up at her residence at 6 a.m. at least six days a week and sometimes seven. She started her day in the fields around 7 a.m. and worked 12 or 13 hours. She did not know the government-prescribed rate for her work. She said she had 740 insurable hours of work; the government said 289 hours. The judge found that Ms. Badesha was not a credible witness and lied during her testimony, but decided she worked 480 insurable hours.


Thana Singh testified that he taught in a primary school in India for 32 years before coming to Canada. He also worked on a family farm. He arrived in Canada with his wife and their son and daughter on Dec. 9, 1996, and started work two months later putting nets over ginseng plants in fields near Cache Creek. He was picked up at 4:30 a.m. and travelled up to five hours to the work site. When they left Vancouver, it was cold and dark. They worked in the fields for eight hours and then were driven back to their homes. There was no pay for travelling time. He estimated the total work day was 16 hours. “For the most part, his testimony was not believable and he had a track record of deception and lies,” Judge Rowe said before deciding he had worked 621 insurable hours in 1997, and not 936 as he had claimed.

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