On August 4, roughly 60 Mexican workers stopped picking blueberries at Sarbanand Farm in Whatcom County to protest the alleged treatment of a colleague, Honesto Silva Ibarra, who fell ill on the job.
Silva Ibarra died two days later at Harborview Medical Center. Workers claim that farm management ignored requests from Silva Ibarra to see a doctor before his hospitalization. In a statement, Sarbanand Farm disputed that version of events, saying a manager called 911 after Silva Ibarra’s nephew reported his illness and that he never made any health complaints before the emergency call. The company added that it has paid to transport Silva Ibarra’s body back to Mexico, as well as a funeral. The King County Medical Examiner’s office has not yet released Silva Ibarra’s cause of death.
The day after the strike, a manager at Sarbanand Farms fired all the protesting workers for insubordination. He gave them an hour to collect their belongings and told them a bus could take them to Bellingham, the nearest city to this stretch of farmland along the Canadian border.
Many of the farmworkers ended up at the backyard of Joaquin Suarez down the road. On Monday afternoon, some of them rested in donated tents. Others chatted away the afternoon, munching on chicharrónes. As an attorney answered questions about visas, volunteers chopped chicken for stew.
All the workers came the United States on H-2A visas sponsored by Munger Farms, the California-based company that oversees Sarbanand Farms. Munger Farms, owned by brothers Baldev Munger and Kable Munger, produces blueberries, almonds and pistachios for Naturipe.
H-2A visas, given to seasonal agricultural workers, are predicted to bring more than 15,000 people to Washington State this year, reports Capital Press, an agricultural news agency.
Six workers who spoke with The Stranger described grueling conditions and pressure to work hard and fast at Sarbanand Farms. If they didn’t meet expectations, workers said, managers would threaten to fire them, all but guaranteeing their return to their home country without a job.
“When we were sick, we were yelled at,” said Mauricio, 51, through a translator. “They would snap at us whenever we did something they didn’t like. They said we would be going back to Mexico. We had problems, but we were scared to ask.” (The Stranger is not publishing workers’ full names out of concern for potential retaliation.)
When workers did raise concerns, they said, management ignored them.
“No one listened when we would speak out. We would point out people feeling sick, but they wouldn’t listen,” said Luis, 46.
Workers said they made $13.38 per hour, typically working 12 to 13 hours a day. They described unpredictable schedules, sometimes working three days on and three days off. All six workers who spoke with The Stranger said the food provided by the company, the price of which was deducted from their paychecks, was unappetizing. Here’s an example of a meal served to Sarbanand laborers:
In the weeks since they lost their jobs, the farmworkers have sought medical treatment at Bellingham PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center for a number of ailments, including dehydration, infections and paresthesia.
In a statement to The Stranger, a spokesperson for Sarbanand Farms said it offered to pay for transportation home for terminated workers (25 accepted) and is working to extend visas for striking workers so they may return to the United States for other farm jobs. The statement contradicted some of the claims from workers.
“The company conducts full orientation and worker safety meetings with all harvest workers as they arrive at the Sumas farm,” the statement read. “Company policies encourage all employees to report illnesses, concerns and all other problems they may have. The company responds to all such requests in a reasonable and appropriate manner.”
The statement also touted the farm’s “state-of-the-art” facilities, including a soccer field, wifi and regular bus service to town.
The Washington Department of Labor and Industries has opened investigations of the farm for potential violations of workplace safety and employment standards.
“The workers who walked off the job unexpectedly and abruptly in mid-season put Sarbanand Farms’ business in jeopardy,” the statement read. “The farm felt it had no choice but to terminate their employment, as is appropriate under state and federal law, and in accordance with the H2A contract provisions.”
The alleged conditions at Sarbanand Farms are common among farms that employ H-2A workers, according to Joe Morrison, an attorney for Columbia Legal Services that is representing some of the fired laborers. Foreign nationals who obtain H-2A visas aren’t entitled to federal protections afforded to other agricultural workers, including statutory damages for some labor violations and access to federal courts. H-2A workers are also required to work for their sponsoring employee, making them more vulnerable to exploitation.
“Their visa ties them to one farm. They can’t go anywhere else if their conditions are bad. Their only choice is to put up with the conditions or go home,” said Morrison.
Today, 13 workers left Whatcom County for Mexico. More are expected to leave through the week.
Edgar Franks of Community to Community provided translation for this piece.