Fired Sumas farmworkers face uncertain future for themselves and their families

About 13 of the approximately 70 fired farmworkers living in a makeshift camp in Sumas returned to Mexico Tuesday morning, with their travel paid for by the farm, and at least 12 more will fly out on Wednesday, said Lucia Suarez, who owns the property where the unemployed men are camping.

The men were fired by Sarbanand Farms on Aug. 5 after they went on a one-day strike to protest what they claim were poor working conditions and a lack of medical treatment given to coworker Honesto Silva Ibarra, who died in Harborview Medical Center on Aug. 6. He was 28 years old.

The King County Medical Examiner’s Office isn’t investigating Silva’s death because the hospital reported he died of natural causes, a representative for the office said.

When Cristo Daniel Rodriguez Rodriguez reflects on Silva’s death, he said he thinks, “What would have happened if I was in his place?”

Rodriguez, 25, has done temporary farmwork in the U.S. for three years to support his wife, 8-year-old daughter, 6-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter in Nayarit, Mexico.

After being fired from Sarbanand, some of the men walked a mile and a half to the home of Lucia and Joaquin Suarez, where they had occasionally gone for home-cooked meals. When they arrived with suitcases and backpacks, Lucia opened their home and told the men to bring anyone who needed a place to stay. Over the following week, people donated tents, tarps, hay, wood, food, portable toilets, clothes, medical services and even a refrigerator for the campers to use.

The men, who spoke through an interpreter, said they do not regret going on strike. They said they were pushed into action when they heard of Silva’s hospitalization.

Samuel Mayorga Salas, 29, started as a temporary farmworker in Washington state in 2015. He said on difficult days working in the fields, when the rows of blueberries blocked any breeze and the sun beat down on him, the thought of his family kept him going.

Mayorga has three sons in Nayarit, and a wife who cannot work due to health conditions. He also provides for his parents.

Mayorga had a lot at stake when he joined the strike, but he said Silva’s death was the last straw. Among the workers’ complaints include: not enough water (or having only warm water); food that was poor-quality or in small portions (workers are charged $12 a day for food); and expired visas that have yet to be renewed, despite the farm promising extensions. Munger Farms, which owns Sarbanand, has denied all of the allegations.

The men participated in the H-2A program because they said work is hard to find in Mexico, as the agricultural seasons are cut short by rain and there are not as many opportunities.

In Mexico, most of the farmworkers were only paid 200 pesos, or around $11, per day, according to Edgar Franks, a community organizer with Community to Community Development, a local advocacy group. The farmworkers were paid around $13 an hour at Sarbanand.

Rodriguez said he hoped to save money to build a home in Mexico. Faustino de la Cruz Arizon came to the U.S. from Jalisco, Mexico as a temporary farmworker a year ago for similar reasons.

“We don't ask to be rich, we just want the basic needs met,” de la Cruz said.

De la Cruz talks to his wife and two daughters, ages 11 and 16, over the phone every day. He said he hopes to continue to work – he plans on bringing his family through the H-4 visa program, which allows the family of H-2A workers to join them in the U.S.

The U.S. Department of Labor and the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries are investigating whether the farm violated agricultural employment or health and safety rules. Some of the men are remaining in the camp for now, hoping for some kind of a resolution. Rodriguez is one of them, despite the death of his father-in-law last week.

“My first reaction was that I have to leave and be with them. It was sad to hear (my wife) talk, because I could feel what she was going through,” he said. “But then, if I take off, I don't know if we would be able to resolve anything over there.”

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