By Sarah Porter
Update 2:50 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 1: Washington state Department of Labor and Industries announced that Sarbanand Farms was not at fault in the death of a temporary farmworker this summer, but did fine them for meal and rest break violations, as reported by The Bellingham Herald. The farm is facing nearly $150,000 in fines – about half from the Whatcom County District Court, and the rest from L&I, which is the largest penalty ever assessed by the agency for these violations, according to the press release. In response, Community to Community Development said they were disappointed with the findings, which they feel do not represent the reality of working conditions. See their full Facebook post at the bottom of the story.
“It’s a forced labor case,” said Joe Morrison, an attorney representing the workers through the law firm Columbia Legal Services.
The workers alleged abusive conditions that violate federal law against human-trafficking. They were hired under the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program, a work visa program which made them reliant on Sarbanand Farms for their housing, food, transportation and health, according to a statement by Columbia Legal Services.
Sarbanand Farms issued a statement that said that they are being “unjustly charged,” and that they will “vigorously fight the allegations in the complaint.”
The attorneys on the case hope to expand it to a class-action suit to represent more than 600 workers.
The lawsuit does not claim that the death of the temporary worker, Honesto Silva Ibarra, was caused by working conditions on the farm.
A coalition of Whatcom County farmers agree with the farm. Members of Whatcom Family Farms are promoting their views on farming issues, and they want to visit Western soon to provide information about the visa program, Communications Director Gerald Baron said.
Baron is concerned that the H-2A visa program is being targeted by the lawsuit and activists. Whatcom Family Farms wants to show students the H-2A program’s benefits, he said.
“This lawsuit is nothing more than a publicity stunt,” Baron said. “The effort to take away guest worker jobs is hurting people.”
Morrison said the recent lawsuit will not end or prevent the use of the temporary visas, but that it will help to ensure farms using the program treat their employees fairly.
“You can’t mistreat folks in a way that was alleged in the complaint,” Morrison said.
Baron doesn’t think the alleged treatment is true, but agreed with Morrison’s statement.
“If the lawsuit is correct, then the farm is in a lot of trouble,” Baron said.
In 2016, there was a total of 690 H-2A certified visas in Whatcom County, and 618 of them were from Sarbanand Farms, according to the most recent data from the Department of Labor. Baron said the majority of H-2A workers were from Mexico.
“We think it is a labor program with a long history of exploitation. We’re very much opposed to it.”
Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community to Community Development
He said the guest worker visas allow workers to make between $20,000 – $25,000 in around three to five months, which would take about six years at the average wage for farmers in Mexico.
Whatcom Family Farms recently published a website promoting the H-2A visa program, which can be found at www.farmworkerjusticenow.org. They recently published a statement with their take on the lawsuit.
Baron said he is concerned that students are only hearing from groups hostile toward the program such as Community to Community Development, a women-led immigrant rights group that assisted the fired workers last summer.
Community to Community Development has coordinated with student activist groups at Western in the past, according to the the organization’s Facebook page.
The organization says the H-2A program needs a lot of work.
“We think it is a labor program with a long history of exploitation,” Executive Director of Community to Community Development Rosalinda Guillen said. “We’re very much opposed to it.”
Morrison said the visas make workers more vulnerable to abuse because they can only work for one employer, and they are exempt from an important federal law that protects all other farmworkers known as the Agricultural Worker Protection Act.
This law protects all other farmworkers, including undocumented workers, from “false promises,” according to Morrison. In agricultural work, many agreements are made verbally, and the law holds farms accountable to their promises. It also provides that damages can be paid if promises are broken, Morrison said.
The lawsuit said that the farm required workers to pick two boxes full of blueberries an hour, which is considered an unlawful production standard. Columbia Legal Services and Schroeter Goldmark & Bender (the other firm representing the case) said they want to prevent Sarbanand Farms from imposing these unlawful production standards.
They said they also want to stop the farm from allegedly threatening workers with deportation and blacklisting, and also require the farm to inform all workers that current law says they can only be evicted after a court reviews the situation.
The issue of eviction is important because the 70 protesting workers were fired and evicted within one hour, Morrison said. If the workers had known a court had to review their situation, they could have fought to stay, he said.
The attorneys are hoping to have the case class certified, as they said the conditions affected more than 600 workers, but a judge still has to accept it as a class-action lawsuit. Morrison said he is confident this will happen, and Columbia Legal Services said it believes this should happen in a couple of months.
Sarbanand Farms is owned by Munger Farms and partners with Naturipe, a wholesaler. Naturipe products can be found in stores such as Costco, Winco, Whole Foods, Safeway and Trader Joe’s, according to the company’s website.
Updated 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 31 to make it more clear that the case has not yet been class certified.