Protestors rally outside the Whatcom County Courthouse in solidarity with Sarbanand farm workers
Protestors rally outside the Whatcom County Courthouse in solidarity with Sarbanand farm workers Community to Community Development

Honesto Silva Ibarra, 28, was a married father of three from Mexico who worked in Washington on a temporary agricultural visa, according to fellow worker Barbaro Rosas, 30. Rosas had known Ibarra for a little more than a month before his colleague became sick with headaches in the field, he says.

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The last time Rosas heard from Ibarra, he had gone to a local clinic in Bellingham after attempting to tell his supervisor about his headaches and trying to buy a plane ticket home. But Rosas said that their supervisor, an employee of Sarbanand Farms in Sumas, Washington, ignored Ibarra and made him go back to work. Later, he collapsed, according to Community to Community Development, an immigrant rights nonprofit.

Today, Haborview Medical Center and the King County Medical Examiner's Office confirmed that Ibarra was treated at Harborview, and then passed away over the weekend.

Ibarra's illness, Sarbanand Farms' response, and other complaints about workers' treatment launched a one-day strike from 70 farmworkers last Friday, Rosas told The Stranger through a translator. When The Stranger spoke with Rosas on the phone today, he did not yet know his colleague was dead. Rosas spoke to us outside the Whatcom County Courthouse, where immigrants rights activists held a protest in solidarity with the Sarbanand farmworkers.

"We’re aware of the situation,” Norm Hartman, a public relations professional representing the farm, said of the work stoppage. "It’s a labor issue. We do not comment on such matters. We hope it can be resolved." Hartman did not immediately respond for a request for comment on Ibarra's death.

According to the Whatcom County Assessor’s Office, Sarbanand Farms is under a Limited Liability Corporation registered by Baldev Munger, a California-based man who oversees a number of blueberry farms with his brother, Kable Munger. The farm sits right outside Sumas city limits, near the Canadian border.

Here's how Rosas described Ibarra's treatment at Sarbanand, via translator and activist Maru Mora Villalpando:

We were working in the fields and it was really hot. He started having headaches. He reported back to the supervisor. He was ignored by the supervisor. He couldn't take it anymore so he went back to his cabin to rest. Then the supervisor went to the cabin and made him go back to work. And when the shift ended the next day, he went back to work also still with headaches. And the weather was hotter that day. He told again the supervisor how he felt. Again the supervisor ignored him in his request. He went back to his cabin. He couldn't take it anymore. And he asked the manager for a favor: to take him to the airport because he wanted to go back to his family. This staff person responded by saying he couldn't take him because that would mean abandoning the work.

Rosas said that Ibarra attempted to go to the airport on his own to get a flight, but found that his visa had expired and that he couldn't buy the ticket. Then, Rosas said, Ibarra went to a local clinic in Bellingham. When Rosas and other workers asked for a report on Ibarra, they were told that he had arrived for dehydration, Rosas said. "Then he was taken to another place in Seattle," Rosas said. "And then we got some reports back, maybe yesterday, that he was still there."

A spokesman for the Whatcom County Sheriff's department said deputies responded to a "disturbance" at the farm on Saturday evening, but would not elaborate.

The King County Medical Examiner's office confirmed today that Ibarra died, stating his death was not under investigation—meaning that it was not considered unexpected or suspicious. Harborview Medical Center also confirmed that Ibarra had been treated over the weekend, but did not give more information on his condition.

After Rosas and other Sarbanand workers stopped work on Friday, they say they were fired on Saturday at around 11 in the morning. Rosas said he and the other workers who went on strike had showed up to work again on Saturday, but were separated from the rest of the workers and told they were fired.

Rosas said he and the other workers had been living in farmworker housing, but were told they could not stay. Now, Rosas said, the 70 workers are living in tents on a sympathetic community member's property, unable to work because of their expired visas.

Rosas, who is also married and has a baby in Mexico, said he has been coming to work in Washington state for six years, but has never experienced conditions like those at Sarbanand farms. He said the food lacked nutrition and was very oily, and that he was charged $12 per day for meals. Since starting work on July 2, Rosas said he has made $1,600, or $320 a week.

A spokesperson for Washington State Labor and Industries, which investigates worker rights complaints, said, "We are collecting information on what occurred to determine whether we have a role in the matter and whether we need to open a formal investigation. Our main goal is keeping workplaces safe. If there was an on-the-job death, our safety inspectors would be involved.

August 8, 10:39 am: This post has been updated with new information.