Organized farmworkers win at Sakuma Brothers Farms

Farmworkers in the State of Washington will receive compensation after their employer, Sakuma Brothers Farms, agreed to settle a wage theft suit brought against the company by the farmworkers’ organization, Las Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice).

Prior to the wage theft settlement, the farmworkers also stopped Sakuma Brothers from retaliating against members of Las Familias who went out on strike last year to protest the company’s wage theft and other grievances. Las Familias also stopped the company from using replacement workers to take the jobs of those who went on strike.

The workers now are in court to prevent the company from barring families from living in the company’s housing.  According to Las Familias, the company’s decision to bar families from housing is another attempt at retaliation against workers who went on strike.

Sakuma Brothers on June 11 agreed to pay $850,000 to settle the wage theft suit brought by Las Families. Columbia Legal Services, the legal aid agency representing Las Familias, said in a media release that the settlement “is largest farmworker wage and hour settlement on record in Washington State.”

The Sakuma Brothers workers, immigrants from Mexico who now live in the US, organized Las Familias last summer after the company refused to take seriously worker complaints that their pay was less than it was supposed to be.

The company said that the unpaid work was not systematic but rather the result of random errors.

The workers maintained that the unpaid work was deliberate. They also complained about the squalid condition of their housing and the lack of work breaks.

These grievances resulted in a series of strikes during the harvest season that lasted from the summer of 2013 through the fall.

After the harvest season ended, the workers filed wage theft charges against the company. The settlement addresses the workers’ grievances.

The settlement covers a three-year period. About 1,200 workers will receive compensation for unpaid work.

In addition, the company agreed to pay a minimum wage of at least $11.87 an hour. The agreement allows the company to set a piece rate, and if workers earn more through the piece rate than the minimum wage, they keep the higher amount.

The company will also be required to give ten minute rest breaks every four hours.

“This agreement provides fair compensation and improved working conditions. It makes up for their practice of underpaying us and not giving us breaks,” said Francisco Eugenio Paz, a member of Las Familias.

The wage theft settlement  came on the heels of another victory for the farmworkers. In May, a judge ruled that Sakuma Brothers acted illegally when it sent letters this spring  to more than 350 strikers telling them that they would not be rehired during this year’s growing season.

After receiving the letters, members of Las Familias went to court to challenge the firings. Skagit County Superior Court Judge Susan Cook agreed with the workers that Sakuma Brothers was retaliating against workers who had engaged in lawful strike–a violation of Washington’s labor law– and ordered the company to send the fired workers a letter offering them work this year.

Sakuma Brothers had hoped to replace the strikers with workers hired through the US Labor Department’s H-2A Visa program, which allows employers to hire workers from other countries when no domestic labor is available.

In an administrative hearing, representatives of Las Familias argued that long-time Sakuma employees were more than willing to work but had been denied the opportunity because the company retaliated against them for going on strike.

After Judge Cook issued her ruling, Sakuma Brothers withdrew its request to hire H-2A Visa workers.

One issue remains outstanding. Sakuma Brothers has changed its housing policy. It will no longer allow families to live in company housing during the harvest.

Members of Las Familias have charged that the company’s new housing policy is aimed at punishing the strikers many of whom had lived in the company’s housing.

The matter is now being argued before a court in Skagit County, and a decision is expected soon.

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