Document 16: Report on Salmon Canning Industry

Special Report on the Salmon Canning Industry in the State of Washington, and the Employment of Oriental Labor (Olympia: State Bureau of Labor, 1915), pp. 1, 11, 13, 15. Special Collections, University of Washington.

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Special Report on the Salmon Canning Industry of the State of Washington as Relating to the Employment of White Labor, Made by the State Commissioner of Labor, November, 1915.

Ever since salmon fishing began to develop into one of the foremost industries in the State of Washington, there has been constant agitation against the employment of Oriental labor in the canneries.

In the early days of the industry, Chinese coolie labor was almost exclusively employed, but since the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the supply of this class of labor has gradually decreased until today but few canneries rely on securing enough able bodied Chinamen to handle the output. With a few exceptions those that remain are becoming too old to be desirable.

It is almost invariably the rule that Japanese are filling the places thus vacated by the Chinamen, and this intensifies the problem rather than offering a solution, for the people in general have greater antipathy towards the Japs [sic].

This sentiment is to some extent shared by the cannery owners, for the reason that the Japs [sic] are not nearly as trustworthy and reliable as the brown-hued brother of the Celestial race. Moreover they are not as amenable to the requirements of the employer, are quarrelsome among themselves, as well as less efficient in their work. As a matter of fact, the Jap [sic] laborer is looming up much stronger now than the Chinese and is causing much irritation in the communities of the State where his labor, for certain reasons, is sought in preference to that of the white workman....

With the advent of machinery, which today to a great extent does the work formerly done by hand by Chinese, who were the pioneer workers in the canning industry, the situation has of late years materially changed.

The butchering and sliming of the fish -- work repugnant to the white man -- may now be done by machinery. The first machine, the Iron Chink, has displaced a considerable percentage of labor. The name of the machine is obvious and indicates the character of its work. It slits the fish, cuts off the fins and removes the entrails. Operated by four men it can butcher enough fish in one day of ten hours for 1,600 cases of forty-eight cans each, or an increase of fifty to seventy-five per cent for each man over the hand method, at the same time making the work much easier....

The story of the changes being wrought by machinery in the canneries is similar to that in other industries. In the canneries the chief result is that the Chinaman, once demanded, because peculiarly adapted to the work, is no longer needed, except perhaps for the reason that his natural bent is in that direction....

For years the Chinese contractor had entire command of the labor situation, but with the advent of improved machinery in late years, a few of the canneries have dispensed with the contractor, but not altogether with the contract system, for they still adhere to the methods used by the contractor in penalizing the workmen. Thus a new era has dawned, and at the same time another change has taken root, that of the Japanese contractor entering the field, and this past summer, for the first time, a contract to pack the output of one of the largest canneries was awarded to a Japanese contractor at thirty-five cents per case, which was seven cents per case lower than the bid of a Chinese contractor. This incident looms into importance when it is known that almost all of the canneries on Fraser River in British Columbia have been taken over and are now owned by Japanese. Their start was obtained under the contract labor system.

No white man has ever essayed the role of the Chinese labor contractor; possibly because of his natural repugnance to the system. The white man who wanted a job in the canneries always found the Oriental there ahead of him. Should the white man seek a contract with the canneryman it would necessitate the modification of the agreement with his labor, as neither he nor the white workmen would favor such drastic terms....

There is the situation that demands relief -- and the problem that must be solved. Since the Japs have come on the scene in such large numbers the canneryman's viewpoint has moderated for they are not nearly as trustworthy and reliable as the stoical Chinaman, and recently many cannerymen who were interviewed on the subject expressed a preference for white labor, but so long as the present conditions continue, with the supply unreliable and the workmen not forthcoming when needed, they fear that their business would suffer, their pack will be lost, if they should attempt the change on a wholesale scale. These conditions removed, the problem will unravel itself.

Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest