Guest farmworkers find their voices in Washington state

Will a string of strikes by agriculture’s ‘most vulnerable workers’ end in new common ground or a crackdown?


“Al menos que se estén muriendo, no falten.”

Unless you are dying, don’t miss work.

That was the order given to guest workers bringing in the blueberry harvest for Munger Bros., in Sumas, a farming town in the middle of Washington state’s berry belt at the Canadian border. Seventeen days into the harvest, on Aug. 2, Honesto Silva Ibarra, a 28-year-old father of three, fell ill.

Two days later, 70 workers held a one-day strike to protest working conditions. On Aug. 6, Ibarra died from complications of diabetes at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center.

The strike cost the workers their jobs. They were fired, evicted and returned to Mexico within weeks. Most feared, with reason, that they had been blacklisted by recruiters for the H-2A program, which had allowed the farmworkers to enter the country. The Sumas workers are now fighting their former employer in court, part of a surge of political action by workers long seen as powerless.

Workers pick berries at Jim Lott’s blueberry farm in Burbank, Washington. At a farm owned by Munger Bros. in Sumas, Washington, 70 guest workers were fired after a one-day strike prompted by poor working conditions.
Shannon Dininny/AP Images

“H-2A workers are the most vulnerable workers in agriculture,” said Joe Morrison, a Columbia Legal Services attorney representing the Munger farmworkers. “Yet last year, 2017, you had workers from Sumas to Quincy to Kennewick all complaining of severe work conditions, mistreatment, lack of safety and health protections. That’s just unheard of.”

An altar in honor of Honesto Silva Ibarra who died due to complications from diabetes in Sumas in 2017. His death sparked protests over poor working conditions.
Edgar Franks
The H-2A visa program is supposed to be a way to staff farm jobs without displacing American workers. In theory, guest workers fill positions no American wants and earn more than they could at home, while growers get access to a pool of workers with legal status.

In practice, guest workers are easy targets for abuse: They cannot switch jobs, they won’t be invited back if they object to their employers’ demands, and they often arrive in debt and must pay their own way home if they don’t substantially fulfill their contract.

And while legal status may appear to provide H-2A workers with better protections than the undocumented workers who fill most agricultural jobs, the restrictions placed on guest workers dissuade them from advocating for themselves, said Briana Beltran, a fellow with Cornell Law School’s Farmworker Legal Assistance Clinic. Their geographic isolation at worker camps separates them from the wider community, and the transient nature of their work prevents them from organizing. “H-2A workers, they just come here, they do the work and they go,” Beltran said. “They have no sort of representation.”

Congress has shown little appetite for reforming the guest worker program, which has more than doubled in size in recent years. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of H-2A visas approved rose from 85,200 to 200,000. Use of the program continued to increase in 2018; a Farm Bureau analysis shows 243,000 visas were approved in 2018. In the West, Washington was the top destination for H-2A workers: 14,000 H-2A workers in 2017, compared to California’s 11,000. Washington has also become a hotbed for protest over safety concerns, food, and production quotas. Beyond the strike in Sumas, H-2A workers at apple orchards in Quincy and Kennewick walked off the job in separate protests last year.

In January, the fired workers in Sumas sued Munger. In affidavits filed in federal court, 36 former Munger workers contended an abusive attitude pervaded the company. Workers claim they were fed meals contaminated with insects and human hair, provided too little water during the summer harvest and threatened if they didn’t reach unreasonable picking quotas. “It was common practice among Munger’s managers to tell any H-2A foreign worker that complained about working conditions, ‘Para Mexico,’ ” said Giovanna Sierra, a Munger office manager fired following the Sumas dustup, in court papers, meaning, “if you don’t like it, go back to Mexico.”

Guadalupe Tapia, one of two lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a statement to the court that he had hoped by striking “to do something (so) that they would pay attention to us and they would take us into account.”

Protestors at nearby Crystal View Farm this August in wildfire smoke. Similar conditions existed last summer when Honesto Silva Ibarra's death due to complications from diabetes sparked protests over working conditions.
Andrew Eckels

Growers’ responses to the strikes have varied. Some have negotiated with workers represented through an independent union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Others, including Munger, have simply removed striking workers. In statements to the court, Munger CEO Robert Hawk defended the firings and evictions following the Sumas strike. “We terminated their employment for this insubordination,” Hawk said in court papers. “Moreover, as they were no longer employees, they could not stay in the employee housing.” Hawk said Munger offered to drive the fired workers into town so they could head home. The remaining workers completed the harvest without any issues, he said.

A U.S. district judge in Seattle is expected to rule in November whether the lawsuit over the Sumas strike can proceed as a class action against Munger, its Sumas subsidiary Sarbanand Farms and a Mexican recruiting firm. A similar case over a strike in Quincy, Washington, was settled in September, with workers receiving $9,100 each and promises that they could return in 2019.

In the meantime, Morrison, the attorney representing Tapia and his co-lead plaintiff, said growers have grown wary of the public backlash that follows abuse claims. “Growers know that’s bad for business if consumers are seeing workers mistreated.”

Levi Pulkkinen is a Seattle-based journalist specializing in law and justice issues in the Pacific Northwest.  

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Note: This story has been updated with 2018 H2A numbers. Also the captions have been corrected to clarify that Ibarra’s death was due to complications from diabetes.

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