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Washington Farmworkers Protest Working Conditions After Colleague Dies

Courtesy of Community to Community
Farmworkers at a recent protest of working conditions at Sarbanand Farms in Sumas, Wash.

Dozens of blueberry pickers in Whatcom County are protesting their working conditions after one of their colleagues fell ill and died.

About 70 workers at Sarbanand Farms, near the Canadian border in Sumas, walked off the job last week in protest, according to advocates helping the workers. 

They are Mexican nationals allowed to work temporarily in the United States under the federal H-2A program.

Their protest came after a fellow worker fell ill last week. Workers say their supervisors ignored his complaints of head pain before he collapsed in the fields.

Honesto Silva Ibarra died Sunday at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Advocates for the workers say he was 28.

The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries is looking into the death but hasn't opened a formal investigation, a spokesman said Tuesday.

The U.S. Department of Labor is also investigating, a spokesman said Wednesday.

Among the workers' complaints is that their employer didn't provide them enough food.

"According to what I heard, there were times where all they would get was one small sandwich" a day, said Joe Morrison, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, a group representing the workers. 

"Most of us wouldn't survive at our desk jobs on a sandwich a day," he said. "We'd think we were starving." 

Sarbanand Farms is an affiliate of California-based Munger Farms. 

Norm Hartman, a spokesman for the company, said the owners deny charges of harsh working conditions at Sarbanand Farms.

"The conditions for the workers there are as good as they get anywhere in the U.S.," he said. 

Hartman said Ibarra suffered from a medical condition and "did not purchase the medication he needed." He declined to say what the condition was, citing privacy concerns.

"He ran out," Hartman said. "He didn't get replacement medication." 

Farmworkers say they were fired for stopping work and are now living in tents on a property near the farm. 

Morrison said some are considering returning to Mexico, but they are effectively stranded in Washington.

"Even if they decided today that that's what they wanted to do, was return home, they don't have any money to do that," he said. 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.