Whatcom Farm Friends back Sakuma Brothers in labor dispute

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 17, 2014 

Recent protests by Families United for Justice and some Western Washington Univeristy students on behalf of local farmworkers caught plenty of attention from local farmers. We have closely followed the travails at Sakuma Brothers since fall. We fully understand the farm labor issues presented by farm workers and their advocates need to be addressed.

Labor is a necessary component of agriculture. The crops need to be picked and packed. Cows need to be milked cattle fed. Machines provide significant help to all these needs but someone needs to operate them, maintain them and manufacture them.

No farmer denies the right for farm workers to expect a fair wage, safe working conditions and decent housing. To fail on any of those standards clearly indicates an unsustainable situation. The labor market will ultimately weed out any farmer who cannot provide a safe and fair place for farm workers. On top of that, there are countless federal and state regulations that work to ensure that workers are provided for.

While farmers may rail about how some of these laws are applied we don't debate that they are necessary to check those who are inclined to ignore the rights and protection of farm workers.

It is perplexing that the Sakuma's are being made to appear as the adversary of the farm workers. Those of us who know the Sakuma family understand them to be careful, caring and respectful farmers and employers. They have a multi-faceted operation in northern Skagit County and pack many of the berries produced here in Whatcom. We can't know how every specific dealing with farm workers was handled. Undoubtedly farm managers don't manage every situation perfectly. But to demonize their farm, family and their customers is simply wrong, irresponsible, and intentionally divisive. Watching a family that endured the WWII internment camps go through another fear-based torment is painful.

Farmers with significant labor needs have essentially two options to meet the labor demands on their farms:

Option one: Hire the existing agriculture labor force, many of whom are not work authorized, and risk fines/penalties or worse.

Option two: Use the federal H-2A guest worker program. The program is expensive and difficult to use. It requires farmers to recruit, transport and house foreign workers and guarantee pay for them at a wage set by the federal government - currently $12 an hour. It also requires that all other local workers' wages at the farm match that standard.

Sakuma's were the first local grower to choose the second option. They recognized the labor shortage, tried other means to attract workers but in the end went through the stringent process of applying for guest workers through the federal program. This demands planning months in advance and ensuring that all requirements under the law are met. It is a huge investment in trying to provide fairness to both local and imported workers.

Unfortunately, Families United for Justice and local sympathizers have used this very public action by Sakumas to aggravate the ever-present tension that exists between employers and employees. We question why anyone would support efforts to polarize communities rather than to unite them. Farmers are willing to engage in responsible discussions of the issues surrounding labor supply, fair wages, working conditions, housing and whatever issues are encompassed in our farm labor practices.

Contact Whatcom Farm Friends at 360-354-1337 or at farmfriends@wcfarmfriends.com if your group wants to hear more about our perspectives. We welcome a respectful dialogue with farm workers and their advocates in the spirit of mutual problem solving. We resist the temptation to demagogue complex issues like farm labor and expect the same from others.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Henry Bierlink is executive director of Whatcom Farm Friends. For more information, go online to wcfarmfriends.com.

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