A class action lawsuit was filed Thursday on behalf of about 600 foreign farmworkers who were hired to pick blueberries on a Sumas farm last summer, including 70 who were fired after they went on a one-day strike to protest what they said were poor working conditions and lack of medical care for an ill co-worker.
That co-worker, Honesto Silva Ibarra, was taken to Harborview Medical Center, where he died Aug. 6. The 28-year-old father of three was from Mexico.
He was among the workers, all from Mexico, who were brought to Sarbanand Farms in Sumas under the H-2A visa program, which allows farms to employ seasonal laborers when they can’t find enough U.S. workers to do the job.
The complaint against Sarbanand Farms, its owner Munger Brothers in California – described in the lawsuit as the No. 1 producer of fresh blueberries in the world – and labor contractor CSI Visa Processing in Olympia alleges violations of federal and state labor laws. It also claimed that CSI was unlicensed in Washington state at the time.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Bellingham Herald
Columbia Legal Services attorney Joe Morrison called those brought in under H-2A visas the “most vulnerable and least protected farmworkers” in the country, saying they had fewer legal rights than even undocumented workers.
“You cannot import thousands and thousands of workers from foreign countries, exclude them from the protections of key labor laws and expect everything will work out fine,” Morrison said Thursday as he announced the lawsuit. “The H-2A system is ripe for abuse because it is fundamentally flawed.”
Tom Pedreira, an attorney for Sarbanand and Munger, said his clients have been “unjustly charged in a lawsuit.”
“The companies will vigorously fight the allegations in the complaint, which will be shown to be untrue and without merit,” Pedreira said Thursday.
The suit alleged that the workers believed they would be financially harmed unless they followed the companies’ labor demands.
A top manager at Munger, identified as Nidia Perez, told them, once they arrived at Sarbanand, that they had to be in the field working every day “unless they were on their death bed,” the lawsuit alleged, further accusing the company of violating federal anti-trafficking laws through a pattern of threats and intimidation.
Those included telling the workers they had to pick two boxes of blueberries an hour or they would be fired and sent back to Mexico, which would have required them to pay for their return home, even though there weren’t production quotas in its H2-A job order for Washington state, according to the lawsuit.
Sarbanand Farms fired the men on Aug. 5, after they went on strike. Workers were given one hour to leave under the threat that police and immigration authorities would be called, according to the lawsuit.
The workers’ complaints at the time included: not having enough water (or having only warm water) while working in hot weather and smoky conditions because of nearby wildfires; food that was poor-quality or in small portions (workers were charged $12.07 a day for food); and expired visas that had yet to be renewed, despite the farm promising extensions.
Working for 12-hour shifts in such conditions, workers suffered symptoms of heat stress that included dizziness, headaches and partial face paralysis, according to the lawsuit.
In his criticism of the H-2A program, Morrison said flaws included that the visas tied workers to one employer, so they stay for fear of losing the paycheck their families depend on and because they don’t want to be blacklisted from future work for complaining about working conditions.
Morrison added: “They often live in an isolated labor camp on the grower’s property that is surrounded by a fence with a security guard posted at the entrance, whose job it is to monitor and restrict entry. They have no transportation. They have no car so they can’t come and go as they please and are often entirely dependent on the grower to provide a ride to the grocery store and the bank once a week.”
That was the situation at Sarbanand, Morrison said.
“The facts are that operations at the Sarbanand farm in Washington are exemplary,” Pedreira responded in a statement. “They include modern housing, dining and worker facilities for the H-2A workers. All employees are treated well.”
Federal and state agencies also launched investigations into the matter.
The attorneys who filed the lawsuit don’t represent Ibarra’s family or estate, Morrison said, nor does the lawsuit allege that his death was caused directly by working conditions.