Farmworkers fired in Washington; seek justice

Farmworkers in Sumas, Washington attended a mass on Sunday to honor and say farewell to Honesto Silva Ibarra, who died a little more than a week ago after complaining to his employer that he was too sick to work.

Silva and his comrades are from Mexico. For most of the summer, they were picking blueberries at Sarbanand Farms near Sumas, which is close to the Canadian border.

They were working in the US on H-2A temporary work visas for agriculture.

When word got out on August 4 that Silva had been hospitalized, about 70 of the farm’s workers walked off the job to inquire about Silva’s health status and to complain about their unbearable working conditions.

The day after their inquiry, Sarbanand Farms fired the workers. A day after that, the workers learned that Silva had died.

The workers who inquired about Silva remain in limbo, stuck in a makeshift camp on land owned by a sympathetic couple who have given the farmworkers refuge.

Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community to Community Development, a group supporting the farmworkers, laid some of the blame for the farmworkers plight on the flawed H-2A Visa program, which gives employers nearly total control over their workers.

“The problem has always been that farmworkers are afraid to complain,” said Guillen to KUOW, a public radio station. “They can’t strike, they can’t form a union, they have nobody to complain to, they have no family, no community connections. No way to exert what little rights they have in the H-2A program.”

Sarbanand Farms brought 600 farmworkers from Mexico to Washington for the berry picking season.

For all practical purposes, these workers have few if any remedies addressing problems on the job.

They can’t quit and look for another job. Their circumstances make it difficult for them to form unions. And if they speak up collectively and get fired for doing so, they have few if any legal rights.

The circumstances involving Silva’s death are in dispute. According to the company that operates Sarbanand Farms, when Silva, complained about not feeling well, the company arranged for an ambulance to take him to a nearby medical clinic.

Farmworkers tell a different story. Silva, according to several accounts, complained of severe headaches to a supervisor, who ignored his complaints and ordered him back to work.

What is indisputable is that Silva, who is diabetic, died of cardiac arrest on August 6 in a Seattle hospital after being transferred from the clinic where he first sought treatment.

The Washington Labor and Industries Department and US Labor Department are currently conducting an investigation to determine if conditions on the job contributed to Silva’s death.

Conditions in the field where Silva worked were unquestionably difficult. The weather was unusually hot and smoke from a wildfire in Canada had drifted down to Washington causing an air quality alert.

After Silva became ill, the workers who walked off the job to inquire about their friend complained to company management that there wasn’t enough drinking water in the field.

They also complained about their food. They paid $12 a day for food, but their portions were skimpy and the quality was bad.

A report by the Stranger has a picture of  what a typical meal at the Sarbanand farm looks like.

Finally, the workers complained that some of their visas had expired, which made it impossible for them to return home if they didn’t like their working conditions.

Under the H-2A program, employers are responsible for keeping their workers visas up to date, and many of the workers at the farm were working under expired visas.

Instead of considering the merits of these grievances, Sarbanand summarily fired the workers and wouldn’t pay them for the work they had already done.

A few days after being fired, the workers and their supporters marched to the Sarbanand offices to demand that the company pay them.

The company, which originally said that it had mailed the workers final paycheck to Mexico, finally agreed to pay the workers the money owed them.

During this time, the workers have been living under difficult circumstances. People have donated food, tents, and other necessities to sustain them.

Some of the workers would like to get their jobs back or to go to work on other farms. Some want to return to Mexico.

Earlier this week, 25 workers did return to Mexico at the expense of the company, which is required to provide transportation to and from the workers’ country of origin.

Cristo Rodriguez is one of those who is staying in hopes that he and the other farmworkers can get justice.

Rodriguez told the Bellingham Herald through an interpreter that he had thought about returning home after learning of death of his father-in-law but has decided to stay.

“My first reaction was that I have to leave and be with (my family). It was sad to hear (my wife) talk, because I could feel what she was going through,” said Rodriguez. “But then, if I take off, I don’t know if we would be able to resolve anything (at the Sarbanand Farm).”

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