Operators of a Washington blueberry farm repeatedly threatened immigrant workers with deportation, provided them insufficient meals, and told them to work “unless they were on their death bed,” according to a lawsuit filed by two high-profile local law firms Thursday.
The suit alleges Sarbanand Farms in Whatcom County and its California-based parent company Munger Brothers violated state and federal law in their treatment of workers. Munger is the largest blueberry producer in the world, according to the complaint in the case. The company sells to Costco, Walmart, Whole Foods, Safeway, and other stores, according to its website.
Last summer, about 70 workers at Sarbanand Farm went on strike after one of their coworkers, Honesto Silva Ibarra, was hospitalized. Silva Ibarra later died at Harborview Medical Center. Workers said managers at the farm had ignored his requests to see a doctor before his death. After the one-day strike, the company fired the workers and gave them an hour to leave the farm where they worked and lived. Some workers then moved down the road to a makeshift camp. The case filed Thursday does not directly link working conditions to Silva Ibarra’s death, but claims the company’s treatment of workers both before and after the strike was illegal.
The suit, filed by Columbia Legal Services and Schroeter, Goldmark, and Bender, currently lists two Mexican workers as plaintiffs. But the lawyers are seeking class action status to represent more than 600 workers who came to the United States on H-2A visas, given to temporary agricultural workers, and picked blueberries for Sarbanand Farms and Munger Brothers. The case seeks injunctions against the companies to improve worker conditions as well as unspecified lost wages and damages.
According to the complaint, Munger brought more than 600 H-2A workers to the U.S. between March and May 2017 to harvest and pack blueberries, first in California and later in Washington. The H-2A visa is a controversial program specifically targeted at agricultural jobs. It allows agricultural employers in the U.S. to bring foreign workers into the country, but ties those workers to the employer, making it difficult for them to leave if they face poor working conditions. Workers usually live on site at the farm where they work. The farms are sometimes surrounded by guards and fences. Employees depend on their employer for meals and housing. If an employee is fired or leaves a job while on an H-2A visa contract, the worker is responsible for their own transportation home.
About 75,000 workers were in the U.S. on H-2A visas in 2013. Last year, around 15,000 H-2A workers were expected to be employed in Washington. Worker advocates have long highlighted the flaws in the H-2A visa program, including the fact that H-2A workers are excluded from some federal labor protections for other farm workers.
“H-2A agricultural workers are the most vulnerable and least protected farm workers in our country,” said Columbia Legal Services attorney Joe Morrison. “You cannot import thousands of workers… exclude them from key labor laws and expect that everything will work out fine.”
According to the complaint in the Sarbanand Farms case, workers were not given sick days and instead told they must work “unless they were on their death bad.” Managers regularly told workers to work faster and threatened to fire them and force them to return to Mexico if they did not meet hourly work standards, according to the complaint. Lawyers say these conditions amounted to forced labor in violation of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The company has disputed worker descriptions of the conditions at Sarbanand Farm.
Munger Brothers and Sarbanand Farms "engaged in a pattern of threats and intimidation that caused the workforce to believe they would suffer harm unless they complied with the demands," Morrison said.
If workers complained about conditions, managers threatened to send them home to Mexico and blacklist them from future jobs once they were there, according to the complaint. The company allegedly sent workers who became ill back to Mexico without paying for their transportation. Some workers contributed their own money to help sick or fired coworkers return to Mexico, the complaint says. Workers say a manager at the Whatcom County farm, which is just a few miles from a Border Patrol Office, regularly told them he had connections to Border Patrol and threatened to have them deported. (When the workers were in California last July and saw that their visas would expire before they traveled to Washington, the company said it would extend the visas. But the complaint alleges the company may never have actually done that. That could have left some workers vulnerable to or fearful of deportation.)
Firing the workers who went on strike, Morrison said, served as a final threat to workers who might consider standing up against the conditions.
“Our claims are for forced labor,” Morrison said. "These workers were forced to continue to work because of the threats to them.”
The case also alleges the company used an unlicensed labor contractor, CSI Visa Processing, to find the workers in Mexico and get them to the United States. State law required those contractors be licensed and provide workers certain information about their rights.
Neither Munger Brothers nor CSI Visa Processing has responded to a request seeking comment. I’ll update this post if I hear back. UPDATE: In a statement, the company defended conditions at its farm. "The companies will vigorously fight the allegations in the complaint, which will be shown to be untrue and without merit," Munger and Sarbanand said in the statement. "The facts are that operations at the Sarbanand farm in Washington are exemplary. They include modern housing, dining and worker facilities for the H-2A workers. All employees are treated well and are paid well."