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Death sparks labor dispute at Sumas berry farm

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

A blueberry farm abruptly fired more than 100 migrant farm workers Sat., Aug. 5, amid allegations of unsafe conditions that workers say contributed to the death of a coworker days after he collapsed in a field.

More than 80 of the displaced Sarbanand Farms workers set up a makeshift camp at a Sumas residence over the weekend, and roughly 80 remained there Monday. Citizens, farmers and local businesses flocked to the Telegraph Road home, scrambling to fulfill the most basic needs of the workers—who came to the United States under H-2A visas that promised employer-provided food, housing and transportation.

Coworkers said Honesto Silva Ibarra, a 28-year-old guest worker from Mexico, began feeling ill and experiencing severe headaches early last week. Coworkers said supervisors at Sarbanand Farms eventually allowed Ibarra to seek medical attention, but later told him to go back to work, where he collapsed Friday. Ibarra, a married father of three, was then flown to Harborview Medical Center, where he died Monday morning, said Edgar Franks, Civic Engagement Coordinator at immigrant advocacy group Community to Community Development.

An investigator at the King County Medical Examiner’s office said Ibarra’s collapse was not under investigation, indicating the office did not find the death to be suspicious. But many of the farmworkers believe inadequate food, high temperatures, smoke from nearby wildfires and lack of access to health care contributed to Ibarra’s death.

Sarbanand Farms representatives declined to comment on the incident. The 600-acre blueberry farm, located at 4625 Rock Road, is affiliated with Munger Farms. The company began farming at the Sumas location in 2011. Two private security guards stood watch outside the Sarbanand offices Monday with Munger Farms employee Bob Hawk, who referred reporters to a blueberry industry spokesman. “We are aware of the situation,” the spokesman said. “It’s a labor issue and we do not comment on such issues. We hope the issues can be resolved.”

Worker Grievances

The terminated workers allege they were fired for acting in solidarity with Ibarra. Workers said they staged a one-day work stoppage Friday to protest poor working conditions. But Saturday morning, Franks said, Sarbanand management told workers they must sign a separation notice, or they would not receive their last paycheck. Berry picker Gerardo Rosas Alvarez’s copy showed the reason for termination as “insubordination or refusal to work.” He said workers never received their last paychecks.

“We had nowhere to go,” said Jesus Moreno, a 30-year-old picker from Durango, Mexico. “They said we had one hour to leave, and kicked us out in the street.”

About 100 workers began marching from the temporary encampment toward Sarbanand Saturday evening, in an attempt to talk directly to management, said Maru Mora Villalpando, a Community to Community spokesperson. Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said the group dispersed after Sheriff’s deputies and Sumas Police officers told them they could not block the roadway; organizers said they were obeying all traffic laws and were told they couldn’t march without a permit. Franks and Villalpando said all attempts to communicate with Sarbanand or the contractor who brought the workers to the U.S. have gone unanswered.

Villalpando said Sarbanand hired a mix of 600 documented local workers and H-2A Mexican workers at the start of the season. She said Munger Brothers, an affiliated labor contractor, originally brought many of the H-2A workers to the United Staes in May for seasonal work at Munger Farms in California.

H-2A visas allow foreign nationals entry into the United States for temporary or seasonal agricultural work. The program allows agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to the United States to perform temporary or seasonal agricultural labor. H-2A workers are covered under U.S. wage laws, workers’ compensation and other standards, and temporary workers and their employers are subject to the employer and/or individual mandates under the Affordable Care Act.

A California-based labor contractor that provides documented immigrant workers claimed in a 2006 lawsuit that Munger Brothers had hired undocumented immigrant workers, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Moreno said workers were promised fair pay, but were severely underpaid for more than a month of work in California. He said workers were then told to sign new contracts so they could be transported to Washington to work for Sarbanand, where they were scheduled to work through the end of October. Once here, Moreno said workers voiced concerns that their visas were scheduled to expire at the end of June.

“We asked what would happen with our visas,” Moreno said. “They said don’t worry, your work permit will be renewed.” Moreno said management never confirmed the renewals; workers went to work as usual.

Upon their dismissal Saturday, it became clear they were now considered undocumented. Many at the encampment held up their original, unrenewed visas, saying it had been their employer’s duty to follow through on renewing them. Moreno said he was scared the discrepancy could mean he might not get another visa to come back to the U.S to work. “I came from Mexico for a better life for my wife and kids,” Moreno said. “Everyone is really scared of what will happen.”

Franks said it’s rare for H-2A workers to strike, due to the common practice of employers threatening deportation. “It took someone dying for them to take a stand,” Franks said. “They know if they get deported it’s unlikely they’ll ever come back.”

Villalpando remains concerned for the hundreds of H-2A workers remaining at Sarbanand. “Some say they want their jobs back,” she said. “They want to do the work they were hired to do under fair labor conditions. Some would rather go home, but want to make sure they won’t have problems with future employers. They don’t want to leave knowing that this might happen to other workers.” Villapando was unsure how many H-2A workers remained at the farm Monday, but said all of their visas are expired.

U.S. Department of Labor Spokesman Leo Kay confirmed that the agency has opened an investigation into the allegations of mistreatment, but would not comment further. A search of the agency’s online database showed no past cases involving Sarbanand Farms or Munger Farms.

A Community Comes Together

Joaquin Suarez, 38, squeezed between the dozens of tents dotting his property Monday, asking if workers had enough food and water. Suarez and his family welcomed nearly 100 displaced workers onto his Sumas property Saturday.

“I got involved because they had nowhere to go,” said Suarez, who works as a mixer for EPL Feed in Sumas. “They were walking their luggage down the middle of the road. I’m helping because I came here as an immigrant too. It’s not right what they’re doing to these people.”

Suarez said hundreds of community members, farmers, restaurants and churches had dropped off items at the encampment including freezers, generators, tents and prepared food. “I’m shocked,” he said. “The community has done so much. I don’t even know how to thank all the people who have given support.”

Familias Unidas por La Justicia, an independent farmworker union representing farmworkers at Sakuma Farms in Burlington, was on site offering organizational and legal support. Familias Unidas President Ramon Torres was coordinating groups of workers seeking medical attention, and trying to obtain hotel vouchers for the workers. Volunteers were collecting donations to help send workers home to Mexico.

Joe Morrison, a lawyer at Columbia Legal Services, was on site speaking to organizers. “I’ve been working on cases like this in Washington for 20 years,” Morrison said. “I’ve had clients poisoned from pesticides, and this is still probably the most severe case I’ve ever seen.”

Mora said the community outpouring has been overwhelming. “Under the anti-immigration administration we’re under now, the people donating feel they must do what they can, now more than ever, to show that they don’t agree with anti-immigrant sentiments and policies,” she said. “This is giving people the opportunity to say, ‘I don’t agree with bigotry and I’m going to do something in favor of these workers.’”

For more information about relief efforts, see Community to Community Development, http://www.foodjustice.com

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