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Cheap wage labour: race and gender in the fisheries of British Columbia.


Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1996; 314 pp.

Reviewed by Gillian Creese

Department of Anthropology & Sociology

University of British Columbia

Vancouver, B.C.

Alicja Muszynski's study of cannery workers in British Columbia explores the historical development of a labour force shaped by gender and racial divisions that permeated everything from recruitment (as individuals, villages, or contract labour), to tenure in the canneries (seasonal or full-year), rates of pay (with separate and unequal rates for Aboriginal, Chinese, Japanese and white men and women), living conditions (in segregated buildings of differenial quality), and forms of resistance. This is the type of detailed historical analysis that will be welcomed by those seeking to better understand the complex intersections of gender, race and class in Canada.

The book is organized in 7 chapters, the first two chapters outline the author's theoretical framework, and the last two (chapters 6 and 7) provide theoretical summaries linked to the case study. Two of the three middle chapters (3 and 4) outline the historical evolution of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century employment practices in the canneries, creating cheap wage labour by selectively hiring Aboriginal women, Chinese men, Japanese women, and white women and men in different capacities and under unequal conditions of work in the shore plants. Chapter 5, in my view the most interesting material in the book, explores the history of union organizing and the shoreworkers' struggles to abolish discriminatory wage scales after the Second World War.

Muszynski identifies her primary goal as attempting to develop a "general theoretical framework that can help us understand how salmon canners engaged their shore plant labour forces according to criteria of race and gender" (p. 9). To do so, she turns to Marx's labour theory of value, critiquing his failure to recognize that some groups of labour were already more or less valued as part of pre-capitalist relations that were subsequently embedded within capitalism. "[W]hile capitalism and class relations transformed the fisheries and the relations of the people hired as wage labourers, patriarchy, colonialism, and imperialism must also be studied in order to understand how gender and race were used to structure labour power and to divide labourers against one another. That is, class analysis is not sufficient for studying labour as used in this particular industry " (p. 23). She argues instead that we think of these as "three sets of inequalities [that] come together in concrete instances" (p. 20).

It should be noted that this book is based on Muszynski's Ph.D. thesis, completed in 1986. For reasons that are not explained by the author, it took a decade for this study to be published in its present form. This long delay explains in part why this book feels rather dated. The analysis of primary archival research remain as relevant as a decade ago (though much of this appeared in journal articles in the late 1980s), but the same cannot be said for the theoretical explanations that structure the book and, at times, dwarf the historical material. The latter appear embedded within socialist feminist debates of the mid 1980s. Muszynski has not made much attempt to update her bibliography since 1986, and appears to have limited continued reworking of the text to substantive material published on the fisheries in British Columbia. On the other hand, theoretical developments in the intervening decade have been ignored. This is a shame, since there has been a wealth of theoretical material on intersections of gender, race and class produced in the last decade, much of it by women of colour (see for example the collection by Himani Bannerji, Re/turning the Gaze, Toronto: Sister Vision Press, 1993). Post colonial theory, in particular, has had a profound impact on rethinking First Nations-white colonial relations and Chinese-white social constructions in the context of British Columbia (see for example Kay Anderson's book, Vancouver's Chinatown, Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen's, 1991.)

The theoretical claims of the book may be less convincing to feminists well versed in more recent theoretical developments in postcolonial theory, but to a large degree the historical case study stands on its own merits. The voices of cannery workers are seldom evident in this study, and more attempt to use quotations to this effect would be welcome. Yet readers will find that this history of shoreworkers contains many examples of concrete expressions of gendered and racialized class relations and aid in our ongoing efforts to develop more adequate theoretical explanations.
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Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Resources for Feminist Research
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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