Food Justice

Forums explore issues of 
migrant labor


What: Sustainable Farming and Food Systems: A Community Forum

When: 6 pm Thu., Jan. 25

Where: St. Luke's Health Education Center


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

On August 6, 2017, Honesto Silva Ibarra, a farmworker in Sumas, died after exposure to brutal working conditions—inadequate food and water, as well as high temperatures and dangerous levels of air pollution from forest fires.

The unnecessary death of this farmworker brought home to Whatcom County the reality of guest worker programs. Silva Ibarra was one of more than 500 workers brought to work on Sarbanand Farms in Sumas on an H-2A visa as a guest worker. Only one other farm in Whatcom County currently hires H-2A workers.

In 2017, the Department of Labor certified 21,990 agricultural guest workers in Washington, one of the top four states employing H-2A guest workers in the country. The Washington Farm Labor Association is the top recruiter of agricultural guest workers in the state.

There are several categories of guest workers. H-2A visas apply to agricultural guest workers. The structure of H-2A programs is an invitation for worker exploitation. Under the program, workers are typically recruited in their own country by labor contractors who offer them jobs and arrange transportation.

When workers are recruited they often pay many hidden fees to the labor contractors, and they are brought to the United States to work on a temporary basis for a particular employer.

Sarbanand Farms guest workers were bussed from Mexico and were unaware of their destination or where they were when they arrived. Workers at Sarbanand Farms are given housing, but pay $12 per day for meals.

Farmers who apply to the Department of Labor for guest workers must show that there are not enough local workers to fill positions.

Sarbanand Farms advertised for workers at the Mount Vernon Work Source. Workers could apply online, at Work Source offices or at the farm in Sumas.

Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community to Community, a local nonprofit that supports farmworkers and immigrant rights, pointed out, however, that farmworkers typically find work by applying at known farms that employ workers or through informal work networks, not by on-line applications.

So why do farmers hire guest workers?

The answer lies in complete control of the labor force. Guest workers are neither permitted to form a union nor to strike. During their stay in the United States, they must remain continually employed under the contract they signed with the labor contractor. The employer holds the worker’s visa, making it illegal for the worker to leave the worksite.

At Sarbanand, workers were bussed to Walmart once weekly for four hours and then returned to the farm. If workers leave their jobs or if they incur the displeasure of their employers, they can be fired.

Agricultural guest worker programs began during World War II. Thousands of Mexicans were recruited from 1942 to 1964 under the Bracero program that brought workers to the United States as farm laborers. The program was opposed by Mexican/Chicano activists for years because it created a disposable work force.

Cesar Chavez, one opponent of the program, believed that the goal of agribusiness was to create a surplus of farm labor, keeping wages low and making unionization more difficult.

Poverty in rural areas of Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia often drives people to become guest workers.

Economic reforms imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and trade agreements like NAFTA, CAFTA, and FTAA make poverty worse, according to journalist David Bacon. And because H-2A workers can be fired for any reason, they are reluctant to complain about their working conditions because their families are relying upon the money they earn in the United States.

That fact makes it even more remarkable that 82 Sarbanand Farms workers walked out in protest over their working conditions last summer.

After the walkout of Sumas farmworkers, H-2A farmworkers in Quincy, Selah, and Moxie also went on strike.

This is a bold statement because workers who are fired and sent back to their home countries may be blacklisted by labor contractors and unable to find work in subsequent years as a guest worker.

Guillen and other activists have compared the working conditions of H-2A workers to slavery—workers with no enforceable rights who are not permitted to leave their employer and subject to the whims of the employers.

Short of abolishing guest worker programs, what can be done to improve the lives of guest workers in Washington state? Strengthening requirements for farm labor contractors to promote the safety, welfare and health of agricultural employees would be a good start.

Currently, farm labor contractors in Washington state pay a $5,000 surety bond, regardless of the number of workers hired.

Under California law, labor contractors pay a bond based on their payroll—for payrolls up to $500,000, a bond of $50,000, and for a payroll over $2 million, a $75,000 bond.

Washington could do the same—increase the surety bond and base it on the total payroll of a farm. Farm labor contractors should be required to have training and to be knowledgeable about employment law regarding agricultural laborers, pesticide safety and sexual harassment prevention. In addition, farmers who employ guest workers should be required to have medical and liability insurance for each worker. And finally, if a guest worker dies, all permits for that farm should be rescinded.

Under the current system, farmers have an incentive to hire guest workers rather than local workers because they do not have to pay social security taxes or unemployment for guest workers.

This hurts local workers who may have difficulty finding employment and also creates unfair competition for local farmers who do not hire guest workers.

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