Photo by Anelyse Morris
After strikes by farmworkers over inhumane working conditions and the death of worker Honesto Silva Ibarra in Whatcom County, Bellingham’s Community to Community Development is taking the fight to the State Legislature by advocating for a bill that would increase protections for Washington’s agricultural workers.
Community to Community Development is a local grassroots organization dedicated to food sovereignty and immigrant rights, according to the organization’s website.
Ibarra, an H2-A worker at Sarbanand Farms, a blueberry farm in Sumas, Washington, died on Aug. 6, 2017 after going to the hospital with a headache and a fever. Around 70 of Ibarra’s fellow farm workers went on strike following his death in protest of work conditions on the farm and were met with job termination, according to The Bellingham Herald.
According to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, the 28-year-old passed away from natural causes, but Community to Community Development and other organizations focused on farmworker justice have criticized what they consider to be exploitative work conditions for workers on the farms.
Following an investigation, Sarbanand was ultimately found non-negligent but fined nearly $150,000 due to poor working conditions. The fine has since been reduced to $74,825, according to the Herald. Since then, a class-action lawsuit has been filed against the farm for unlawful work standards as well as for wrongful firing and eviction of the workers in 2017. The lawsuit was approved by a judge in December 2018.
The Washington State Senate recently passed Senate Bill 5438 by a 26-21 margin, which proposes amendments to the current H-2A program, specifically by creating an advisory board in charge of overseeing the program, according to the Washington State Legislature website. The bill is currently pending in committee at the House of Representatives.
The H-2A program allows U.S. employers to bring foreign nationals to the U.S. to fill temporary agricultural positions, with certain requirements, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.
Whatcom County currently has two farms operating under the H-2A program, one of which had 90 farm workers go on strike in 2017 after not getting paid for a month, Edgar Franks said, the civil engagement program coordinator at Community to Community Development.
Franks said Washington state has experienced a 1,000 percent increase of incoming workers through the H-2A program since 2008.
Thirty-thousand workers are expected to enter the state in 2019, making Washington the state with the second-highest number of H2-A workers across the nation, he said.
“We are seeing this trend that it is not slowing down, but at the same time there have been no state agencies available to take accountability when issues like this start to happen,” Franks said. “So we see that as a problem and a recipe for disaster.”
Maureen Darras from the Cooperative Development Program of Community to Community Development said the advisory board that would be created by the bill would recognize the role that local grassroots organizations such as Community to Community Development and Familias Unidas in monitoring the H2A program, by appointing four seats on the advisory board to farmworker leadership.
“The creation of the advisory board recognizes that farmworkers have a part to play in the oversight of the program,” she said. “It can’t just be institutions and the industry regulating itself.”
Franks said he and his colleagues at Community to Community Development think the way the program is being used by growers is causing a displacement of local workers in an attempt to lower wages, which is causing a lot of resentment in the community among workers. The 2019 cap for H-2A worker income is $15 per hour, he said.
“It’s not in our interest to have workers fighting with other workers,” he said. “Especially when we’re trying to build solidarity and organize.”
The program also forces workers to be stuck working under one farmer, Franks said. He said this makes it almost impossible for workers to fight for their rights or address issues they’re having due to power dynamics and a constant threat of deportation.
“We’re seeing a lot of workers trying to escape extreme poverty and when they’re put between [choosing] poverty or putting up with undignified working conditions, most workers will put up with anything to make a few extra dollars,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, growers see that and take advantage of it.”
Community to Community Development held a forum on March 5, updating the community on the state of the bill and the issues surrounding the H-2A program.
Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community to Community Development, spoke at the forum and urged members of the community to call the legislature and push for the bill.
“It’s getting worse because of the sheer amount of numbers coming in,” Guillen said at the forum. “The state agency’s funding and staffing has not grown with it, it’s unmanageable.”
Community to Community Development will hold the sixth annual Farmworker Tribunal on Monday, March 18, from 4:30-6:30 p.m. at the Legislative Building in Olympia. This tribunal will allow hundreds of farmworkers from across the state to testify in front of three tribunal judges about their experiences in the H-2A program.
“It’s important that whatever policy comes out of this comes directly from the people who are impacted: The farmworkers,” Franks said. “It lends credibility to the policy and gives us something worth fighting for.”
Community to Community currently hosts a radio series called “Community Voz Radio” where it voices its activism. In a segment called “No Way to Treat a Guest,” Darras discusses the issues within the H2-A program and the farmworker community in Whatcom County.
Franks said his main hope for the advisory board is that it will include people who are well-researched and will work efficiently, because the workers deserve to be taken care of.
“It shouldn’t be up to community organizations like us, we get no funding,” he said. “We do it because we believe that every farmworker should have justice.”
This story was updated on Wednesday, March 13 to correct the following: The hosts of Community Voz Radio are not the Racial Justice Coalition, but Community to Community Development. In addition, Maureen Darras said the advisory board for the bill would recognize the role of grassroots programs in monitoring the bill, not transfer accountability to state agencies as the story previously stated.
The story was also updated to include that while the medical examiner determined Ibarra to have died of natural causes, Community to Community and other grassroots organizations focused on farmworker justice believe he died of worker exploitation by Sarbanand as well as medical neglect. It was also updated to include context for a subsequent class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the fired farm workers.