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Foreign Workers Sue Washington Farm Claiming Poor Conditions, Retaliation

Will James
Joe Morrison (center), an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, at a news conference in Seattle on Jan. 25, 2018

Legal temporary farmworkers are the "most vulnerable" agricultural workers in the country, an advocate said Thursday, describing them as having fewer rights than undocumented immigrants. 

The nonprofit law firm Columbia Legal Services, which is helping some 600 farmworkers from Mexico sue an employer in Washington State, says the case points to "inherent flaws" with the federal H-2A visa program. 

"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," Joe Morrison, an attorney with the firm, said at a news conference in Seattle. 

Former blueberry pickers at Sarbanand Farms, near the Canadian border in Sumas, say they worked 12-hour days in the heat with little food last summer. 

When about 70 of the employees walked off the job to protest the conditions, they were fired and managers gave them an hour to vacate housing on the farm property, Columbia Legal Services says. The workers ended up staying in tents on a nearby property and have since returned to Mexico. 

Columbia Legal Services is seeking damages for hundreds of former employees of the farm, claiming violations of federal and state labor laws. The class-action lawsuit was filed Thursday in federal court in Seattle. 

Sarbanand Farms's parent company is Munger Farms, located in Delano, California. A lawyer for the company called allegations in the lawsuit "untrue." 

"All the Munger companies take seriously their responsibilities with respect to worker safety and they are committed to the wellbeing of every one of their workers," said attorney Thomas Pedreira. 
About 18,000 workers, almost exclusively from Mexico, obtain legal permits to work temporarily on Washington farms, Morrison said. They work mainly in the apple, pear and cherry industries, he said.

These so-called H-2A workers have been "written out of" the federal government's primary law protecting other farm employees, the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, he said.

Such workers find themselves dependent on their employer for food, housing and transportation. They often live in labor camps surrounded by a fence, where a security guard restricts who can enter, Morrison said. 

"The work visa ties the worker to one agricultural employer," he said. "That means H-2A workers don't have that fundamental freedom that all other workers have: the right to vote with their feet." 

They're also reluctant to complain, due to fear of being fired and forced to pay their way back to their home country or being "blacklisted" from future jobs, Morrison said. 

Representatives of Columbia Legal Services have met with Gov. Jay Inslee's staff to talk about flaws in the federal program and ways to strengthen protections for H-2A workers in Washington.

The August strike at Sarbanand Farms followed an incident in which a worker collapsed in the fields after complaining of head pain.

Honesto Silva Ibarra, 28, later died at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. 

The state Department of Labor and Industries is investigating the death, a spokesman said. A six-month deadline for the department to complete the probe is in mid-February. 

Another investigation by the federal Department of Labor also remains open, a spokesman 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.