Profiles of Working Class
East Indian Women

Interviewed and translated by: Prabha Kholsa

From: Currents Winter 1983/84 pp.13-166
© 1983 Urban Alliance on Race Relations

Two Hundred Pants a Day

Kewal Hundal is forty-eight years old and works in one of the largest clothing manufacturing plants in the Metro Toronto Area. The factory employs about five hundred workers. They work in one shift from 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.

Ever since I started working here I have been sewing pants. The factory makes men's clothes, specifically, three-piece suits for places such as Tip Top Tailors.

Almost all the workers are women. Although there are all kinds of women working here, I would say the majority are Chinese women. A few men work here, but they primarily work in the area where the material is cut, and I don't know what they are paid.

All the rest of the sewing, cutting and pressing work is done by women. The work is divided into many categories. For example, even though I sew pants, the parts I sew are basically the four seams, two for each leg. Four other women do the same work as me. Two of them are Chinese, one is Black and one is Portuguese. People are not transferred from one part to another very often.

Most of us are paid by the piece. Only a few women, about 10 out of a 100, get an hourly rate. At the hourly rate, you begin at $3.50 an hour and then you get a 50¢ raise every 6 months. There are a few women who make up to $4.50 an hour. But they really make you work on the hourly rate.

I can do 150 to 200 pants a day. I get paid by the piece. So I make $l8.00 for every 100 pants. Sometimes, when the material is easier to handle, I can do up to 220 pants a day. Some of the women are really fast, and they can sew 200 or 300 pants a day. So they make more money.

The women who work on the pants are in one area of the factory and those who work on the coats are in another. We are divided in to separate sections so that those women who do the buttons are in one area, the ones who sew the zippers are in another, and so on. All the work is divided, like an assembly line with different women working on the collars, others sewing the sleeves and the coats, and still others doing the pressing. The clothes have to be ironed during the different stages of sewing, so the pressers are spread out throughout the factory.

There is no uniform wage here. In some areas, the women make more than in others. Like, the women who sew the buttons can make $50.00 to $60.00 a day. But again, they have to work really fast, and not waste any time. There is no overtime. Everybody goes home at 4:45 p.m. We get about 45 minutes for lunch.

There used to be another union here and we used to get two fifteen minute breaks. Now we have a different union and we don't get the breaks anymore. As you know, I don't speak English, so I don't always know what is going on. There used to be a young Indian man who talked to me and told me what was happening in the factory, but he doesn't work here anymore. Some of the women seem to prefer to work right through lunch and don't mind if they don't get a break. Others do.

I want to continue working here, because it is so difficult to get another job these days. And anyway, it is better than some of the other work that our people are doing.

Three Children Died Last Year

Most of the farmwork in British Columbia is concentrated in the Fraser and Okanagan Valleys and is done by immigrant workers. In Greater Vancouver, the majority of farmworkers are primarily Indian or Chinese. There is also a small percentage of working class whites. Farmwork is seasonal, and consequently a large proportion of the workforce is migratory. Some, like the Quebecois workers, travel to the Okanagan Valley every summer to pick fruit. Due to inadequate housing, they usually have to resort to tenting. Many of the farmworkers fn the Fraser Valley live a great distance away in the interior of British Columbia. They are accommodated in converted sheds or barns. It is estimated that the majority of the 10,000 farmworkers in British Columbia are girls and women between the ages of 8 to 70 years old. Kuldip Kaur Bains, who is interviewed below, is sixty-three years old, a grandmother and a worker.

We come down to this farm about March-April, and we live here the whole summer till the end of August, beginning of September. This is the third year we have come to this farm: me, my husband, my daughter-in law and her two children. My son works at the saw mill in Williams Lake. That is where we live. And my daughter-in-law comes later when the children have finished school. We live in this barn here, that has been converted so that it can now accommodate five families. It's been divided up into five sections, but as you can see, it's all rough work with an unfinished plywood ceiling and the walls are bare gyproc. Nothing has been painted or anything. And there aren't enough light bulbs and there are no windows. We have two bunk beds next to each other with a small table. We keep our clothes and other things under the beds.

In the area outside the bedrooms we have two fridges which we all share and five gas plates - one for each family. The washrooms are outside, around the back and there is no light there either. There are no showers and we wash ourselves by carrying water in buckets. There are two toilets and two small divided areas where we clean ourselves. We have to make a living, so we just learn to accept these things. It is very difficult for me to get any other work. I'm old and I don't speak English, so this is the only work I can get. We get up early in the morning, make some breakfast, and lunch to take with us to the fields. We don't come back here until the evening.

The work is hard and back-breaking. But only us Indians do it. Nobody else will. And we get paid so little. For example, if we pick raspberries we get $2.50 for one flat which weighs 16 lbs. It takes a lot of picking to fill one flat and towards the end of the season it takes even longer. But we don't get the whole $2.50, because the farmer deducts money for allowing us to stay here in his barn. So what we get to keep for ourselves is something like one dollar out of every $2.50.

When we are picking broccoli and cauliflower, we use sharp knives and quite often people get hurt. But there is no first aid on the farm and they usually don't take us to hospital unless it's very serious. So most of us carry bandages with us. Many of us have rashes. People say it's from the pesticides we use on the vegetables and fruits, but the farmer is not doing anything about it.

It's also dangerous for our children. Some of the older children work with their parents but the younger ones stay with their mothers in the field. Three children died last year, because no one was looking after them. They were just playing by themselves.

Because of all these problems, I joined the Canadian Farmworkers Union. They said that if we are all united we will be able to get better money for our work and also be covered by the Worker's Compensation Board. We don't get many of the benefits that other workers get. After all, aren't we like other people? We do the work like everyone else and we should get these things. How would they eat if we were not doing this work?

Is There a Union Here?

Sudha Patel has lived in Canada for eleven years.

One of my first jobs was at this factory that makes things like paper bags and other paper products. We had many different machines to work with. We made big bags for industrial use and the smaller ones like the ones you get at grocery stores. There were only a few Indians in the factory. Actually, I think there were only two or three of us.

The way the factory was set-up was that when we came in in the morning, there was a list on the wall indicating which person was assigned to which machine for that day. The machine would be listed with someone's name next to it. And some of the machines were really fast.

Every morning when I would make my way to the machine with my name, the other women who worked there would always tell me, "No, you can't work at that one. You come and work on this one here." Everytime, they would move to the fastest one. I had to work really hard and fast. It was so difficult to keep up to the speed of the machine. And I was really tired by the time I got home in the evening. I don't speak English, even though I do understand some, and I never knew who to complain to about the speed of the machine.

So one day I decided that I had had enough of this. I looked at the list and went to the machine which was assigned to me. Again, these women told me that I couldn't work on it. But this time I said, "No, the list said that I was to work on this one, so this is where I am going to stay."

Well, because of all the noise and confusion the foreman came over and asked what was going on. After he had assessed the situation he said that I had to work on the other machine and not the one with my name on it. Otherwise I could leave right now. So I left, got my lunch and came home. What was I supposed to do?

The next day I went to apply for unemployment insurance because I didn't know how long it would take me to find another job. But at the U.I.C. office they told me that I couldn't apply for U.I.C. They told me that there was a union in the plant . And that I shouldn't have walked out, that I should have talked to the union.

I didn't know about the union. I did have a union card, so I guess it's partly my fault. But I didn't know that the union would do anything about it. They never told me about the union and what it was for. Of course, I guess everybody was in the union but nobody did anything about what had been going on for a long time. And I didn't know who I was supposed to talk to.

I do believe in protecting our rights, but if they don't tell us, how are we supposed to know? I didn't even know the name of the union.

I Want To Learn English

My name is Charanject Dhillon. I was twenty when I came here, five years ago. I had just graduated from the local college in India with a B.A. My first four or five months here, I didn't do anything. I missed home a lot, and used to cry everytime I received letters from my friends. Then, after a while, I started realizing that I should get a job, or I should start going to school. So I took English classes. I used to go downtown twice a week to Manpower classes. I took the classes for about three months and then started to look for a job.

I only looked for the jobs that didn't require much English, because I didn't speak enough then. I was looking for work in a restaurant, hotel or motel to do cleaning as a chambermaid. Finally, I found one. It was for only four hours a day and I was making three dollars an hour. I worked there for a full year, until a friend told me that I should apply for a job at the restaurant where she worked. When you are first here, it is difficult to know where to look for work. Anyway, they finally hired me as a kitchen helper.

I went back to the motel, and told the owner that I was going to stop working there because I now had a full-time job. He said, "Where?" I said "In a restaurant." He said, "Oh ya, you'll probably be washing dishes.'' You know, that is thc attitude they have - that our people only wash dishes. I still remember that. I will always remember that.

I was taking classes all the time then; that's how my English improved. I worked in the kitchen so I didn't have to deal with the customers. It was mostly our people in the kitchen. The waitresses and carhops were all white. I always felt like something was going on. For example, when the waitresses have to ask other white people for something, they smile and speak nicely, but when they have to talk to us, they don't smile at all, and are very rude. I've noticed that.

I'm now working as a nurse's aide. If I had a choice, I wouId like a more creative job: even working in the office. I wouldn't do this work if I had a choice. The work is not any better, but it is better paying; we have a union and benefits.

I wish I could continue to learn English, so that I could say what I feel like inside. Right now, I can't. Many times, I find myself stuck for words. I want to be good in English so that I can get a good job. Now I know what other women are doing and I know I can do the work, but I think I will have some problems communicating with others. I think the other people think you are dumb if you cannot communicate with them.

Prabha Khosla was born in Tororo, Uganda. Presently she works with the Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Southern Africa and also acts as an organizer/interpreter for working class Indian women at work.

This article was first published by Fireweed the Feminist Quarterly Spring 1983.

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