After one of their own sickened, farmworkers protest conditions at farm near Sumas

About 100 fired farmworkers and community supporters marched to the Sarbanand Farm’s office on Tuesday to demand accountability for a co-worker’s death and the wages they said they’re owed.
About 100 fired farmworkers and community supporters marched to the Sarbanand Farm’s office on Tuesday to demand accountability for a co-worker’s death and the wages they said they’re owed. afields@bhamherald.com

Federal and state agencies are investigating Sarbanand Farms here, where about 70 temporary farmworkers were fired when they went on strike over working conditions after a co-worker was hospitalized and later died.

Honesto Silva Ibarra, who worked for the blueberry farm near Sumas on a temporary work visa, was admitted to Harborview Medical Center on Aug. 3, with a headache and fever. Silva, who has been described as 28 and 30 years old, died Sunday.

The King County Medical Examiner’s Office isn’t investigating Silva’s death because the hospital reported he died of natural causes with no other suspicious circumstances, a representative for the office said.

The U.S. Department of Labor will delve into the workers’ temporary visas as part of its investigation, according to Leo Kay, an agency spokesman.

The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries on Wednesday opened inquiries into whether the farm and its owner violated health and safety, as well as agricultural employment, rules, according to L&I spokesman Tim Church.

L&I investigators were at the farm Wednesday to interview farmworkers and talk to farm management, Church said.

Cliff Woolley, chief administrative officer for California-based Munger Farms, which owns Sarbanand Farms, said the company is cooperating with the agencies.

The case drew harsh words from the Consulate of Mexico in Seattle, whose representatives were at the farm Tuesday to check on the health of workers and to make sure their rights were being protected.

Woolley said Silva had diabetes and had been experiencing continued headaches, but Roberto Dondisch, head consul of Mexico in Seattle, said that was beside the point.

“They are responsible for their well-being,” Dondisch said during an interview Tuesday. “It is up to the farm, and one of their workers died. This is not a small matter. We have to be very serious and very concerned about what happened.”

Dondisch said the consulate would help return the remains of Silva, who has children, to his family in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico.

Farm representatives said the farmworkers’ claims of poor working conditions were untrue, and that they had not heard of any complaints before the workers went on a one-day strike last Friday.

“They didn’t have any valid reasons. They had some complaints but none we had ever heard before, ” Woolley said. “We’re sympathetic and trying everything we can to help.”

What happened?

Silva was among 600 workers hired by the farm through the federal H-2A program, which allows foreign agricultural workers to work seasonally in the U.S.

Speaking through interpreters, the fired farmworkers accused the farm of failing to provide Silva with proper medical treatment. They said Silva had asked for medical care over a period of four days and the farm supervisors told him to go back to work.

Woolley denied this account, saying an ambulance was called immediately after Silva and his nephew reported Silva’s headaches to supervisors on Aug. 2.

Dondisch also expressed concerns about other workers who reported being sick.

Farmworker concerns

The fired workers have been protesting the food and working conditions at the farm.

Their contracts showed that $12.07 a day was deducted from their paychecks for food, but they said the portions they were served were too small or the food was undercooked. They also said some workers fainted while working in the heat, and that they sometimes worked 14-hour days.

A heat warning was in effect for Western Washington last week, which also had unhealthy air quality levels due to smoke from fires in British Columbia.

Kable Munger, one of the owners of Munger Farms, said the company has never received complaints from farmworkers about the food nor accounts of workers fainting. Munger said when it gets too hot, the farm tells employees to stop working, and makes sure they have water and breaks.

Fired workers also said they didn’t get their last paycheck because the farm said they’d send it to them in Mexico. On Wednesday, Woolley said those paychecks were now available at the farm office for pick up.

Woolley also had said the farmworkers who were fired Saturday were given around $300 each for transportation back home. However, five of those workers said none of them received that money.

On Wednesday, Woolley said the company would make arrangements so workers can return to Mexico, and pay for it.

The fired workers are now staying in tents at “Zapata camp,” the name the workers gave to the camp set up in the yard of a home about a mile from the farm. Homeowners Lucia and Joaquin Suarez said they were happy to support the farmworkers.

H-2A visas and investigations

The protests are growing.

On Tuesday, about 100 farmworkers and supporters marched to the farm’s office to demand accountability for Silva’s death and the wages they said they’re owed.

Some of the fired workers are also worried because of the status of their work visas.

They said the farm failed to have their temporary visas extended after repeatedly promising to do so. An examination of 10 visas showed a July 10 expiration date, despite their contract continuing into October.

Woolley said the farm applied for visa extensions – he didn’t know for how many workers – on July 6, just four days before they were set to expire because the farm didn’t know how many workers would be traveling from the company’s California location to Sumas.

He said Wednesday the visas were still being processed. The company has asked that the processing be expedited, Woolley added.

The U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees the H-2A program, declined to comment because the farm was being investigated.

Kay did say the visas were part of that investigation.

The fired workers are still at Zapata camp, where they are being helped by advocacy groups Community to Community Development and Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

Editor’s Note: The Consulate of Mexico in Seattle has clarified Honesto Silva’s name. This story has been updated as of 1:31 p.m. on Aug. 11, 2017.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea