Poor and inequitable working conditions for racialized workers, particularly those with immigrant or migrant status, has long been a part of Canada’s economic and labour landscape. Fortunately, part of that landscape has also been workers acting in solidarity to secure economic and work standards improvement. An important example of this is the union organizing and militance of Chinese Canadian workers in British Columbia in the early 20th century. The active engagement of these unions in fighting racism and exploitation and refusing to accept unfair working conditions and the denial of their members’ rights led to better working conditions for their members, and ultimately paved the way for a more inclusive labour movement.
Chinese settlers are noted to have arrived in Canada in the 1700s and Chinese Canadians had been contributing to Canadian society and infrastructure (typically at significant personal risk and hardship) for decades by the 20th century. Despite this, racism and exclusionary policies and practices implemented by governments, employers and broader society targeted Chinese Canadians and barred them many basic civil and human rights (see further discussion on Voting Rights). This overt and pervasive political and societal racism of the early 20th century was reflected in the kinds of work and working conditions endured by Chinese Canadian workers. At that time, Chinese Canadian workers made up a significant proportion of the labour force in British Columbia, many working on the railway and in the timber industry. However, they were routinely paid substantially lower wages than white workers and were often relegated to work assignments that had been passed over by white workers as being too dangerous or otherwise less desirable.
British Columbia’s shingle mills industry was a prime example. The workforce in that industry was about 70 to 80 percent Chinese Canadian in the early 20th century. Work in shingle mills was initially done on a piecework basis, with workers being paid based on how many shingles they cut and packed. In about 1915, workers were paid 11 cents per 1000 shingles produced. The work was also dangerous; there was significant risk of injury due to the speed of the work and machinery involved.
The political and societal landscape at the time prohibited Asian Canadian workers from becoming members of the many established unions that represented white workers. Organizing within the Chinese Canadian community arose in response, and in 1916, the Chinese Labour Association, sometimes referred to as the Chinese Canadian Labour Union or the Chinese Workers’ Union, was formed.
In the face of the unfair working conditions and exploitation of their labour, the Chinese Labour Association began organizing its first labour action. At that time, shingle workers had a 10-hour daily workday, engaging in dangerous and physical labour in deplorable working conditions. During the summer or 1917 about 800 workers, largely Chinese Canadian workers, went on strike, seeking a reduction of their 10-hour workday to an 8-hour workday. Workers from shingle mills in Vancouver and the surrounding area participated in the strike.
There was some collaboration between the white shingle workers, represented by the International Shingle Weavers Union of America, and the Chinese Labour Association leading up to and during the 1917 strike. However, one source states that it was the Chinese Canadian workers who were more militant, which was recognized and praised by the broader labour movement in the area at the time.
The 1917 strike was ultimately unsuccessful, but the Chinese Labour Association was not deterred. A further, smaller-scale strike took place in 1918 at the Western Canadian Mill. It was reported at the time that the Chinese Canadian workers at that mill had gone on strike to again demand a reduction to their working hours. Ultimately, after a few days of off-and-on strike action, the employer capitulated and agreed to what workers had demanded.
The success and solidarity of these strikes led to another, larger labour action in 1919: a general strike in the shingle mill industry, led by the Chinese Canadian shingle workers. Beginning in March 1919, workers in about 50 shingle mills across British Columbia’s lower mainland went on strike to oppose a 10 percent wage reduction. The strike continued for more than a month and was a resounding success: the unions involved achieved their demand of having their former pay scale restored in April 1919.
During the 1919 shingle mill strike, calls came for a union dedicated to representing Chinese Canadian workers in the shingle trade. This led to the formation of the Chinese Shingle Workers’ Union in April or May 1919.
The Chinese Shingle Workers’ Union recognized that the return to the former pay scale was not sufficient, and that further improvements in working conditions were necessary for its members. The Union demanded higher wages in April 1919 and won. They also demanded higher wages for part-time workers, and secured this gain as well.
The Chinese Shingle Workers’ Union continued their organizing work in the years following this period. In 1920, the Chinese Shingle Workers’ Union appointed representatives in every mill across the lower mainland, and the Union engaged in strike action to achieve further advancements. Unfortunately, the economic downturn of the following years took a significant toll on the membership and organization of the Chinese Shingle Workers’ Union.
Following the labour action of Chinese Canadian workers in 1917 and 1919, there began a move to greater cooperation between white workers and their unions and Chinese, Japanese and South Asian Canadian workers and unions. However, this relationship continued to be fraught with racism and exclusionary policies for many years.
For more information on the Chinese Labour Association, the Chinese Shingle Workers’ Union and the strikes of 1917 and 1919, check out Winnie Ng’s comprehensive article in the Fall 2020 edition of Our Times magazine (excerpt available here), which provided much information for this article. See also Paul Yee’s book, Saltwater City: An Illustrated History of the Chinese in Vancouver (2006, Douglas And McIntyre Ltd.) and the writings of historian Gillian Creese, Professor and Associate Dean of Arts, Faculty and Equity at the University of British Columbia.
For more information on the history of Chinese Canadians during this era, see the National Library and Archives, “Early Chinese Canadians, 1858-1947”, located here.
For a more recent example of migrant and racialized workers facing disparate working conditions, see Schuyler Farms Limited v. Dr. Nesathurai (2020 ONSC 4711) where Cavalluzzo LLP and the Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights were involved in a legal challenge seeking to protect the health of migrant farmworkers in the midst of the global pandemic of COVID-19. Learn more here.
Special thanks to Lauren Sheffield for her assistance in preparing this feature.
About this feature: The Cavalluzzo LLP features series, Reflections: Labour, Human and Civil Rights, highlights some of the leaders, events, and milestones that are historical underpinnings to the current landscape of Canadian human rights and labour rights. Reflections may reference abhorrent historical realities: as we bear witness to those, we also recognize with gratitude the courage and commitment of the changemakers who continue to inspire strides in social justice. Each instalment in this series has been authored or contributed to by Cavalluzzo LLP staff, articling students or lawyers.