Picking blueberries on a Washington State farm. Risking deportation, Washington state farmworkers protest dangerous conditions in the fields
A farmworker's death in the broiling fields of Washington state has prompted his fellow braceros to put their livelihoods in jeopardy by going on strike, joining a union, being discharged - and risking deportation.
Honesto Silva Ibarra died in Harborview hospital in Seattle on Sunday night, August 6. Silva, a married father of three, was a guest worker - in Spanish, a "contratado" - brought to the United States under the H2-A visa program, to work in the fields.
Miguel Angel Ramirez Salazar, another contratado, says Silva went to his supervisor at Sarbanand Farms last week, complaining that he was sick and couldn't work. "They said if he didn't keep working he'd be fired for 'abandoning work.' But after a while he couldn't work at all."
Silva finally went to the Bellingham Clinic, about an hour south of the farm where he was working, in Sumas, close to the Canadian border. By then it was too late, however. He was sent to Harborview, where he collapsed and died.
Silva's death was the final shove that pushed the contratados into an action unprecedented in modern farm labor history. They organized and protested, and when they were fired for it, they joined Washington State's new union for farmworkers, Familias Unidas por la Justicia. As this article is being written, 120 H2A workers are sitting in tents on a patch of land near the ranch where they worked, protesting their treatment and demanding rights for guest workers.
On the website of CSI Visa Processing, which recruited Silva, Ramirez and others to work at Sarbanand Farms, a statement reads: "The compañero who is hospitalized, the cause was meningitis, an illness he suffered from before, and is not related to his work." Ramirez and other workers doubt that explanation. Silva had been working in the U.S. since May, and did not arrive with symptoms of meningitis. Instead, they insist that it was the consequence of increasingly bad conditions at the ranch.
According to Ramon Torres, president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, H2-A workers at Sarbanand Farms had been complaining for weeks about bad food, temperatures in the 90s with no shade, warm drinking water and dirty bathrooms in the fields. In the last two weeks, the air near the border became smoky from forest fires just to the north in Canada, making it hard to breathe. Some workers fainted amid the blueberry plants where they were picking.
When Silva collapsed and went to the hospital, a group went to the ranch management and asked for safer working conditions. When they were turned away, they organized a one-day strike on Friday, August 4. Familias Unidas por la Justicia, which just signed its first union contract with Sakuma Brothers Farms in nearby Burlington, held its first convention that Friday. When the H2-A workers came from Sarbanand Farms, they decided to join.
The following day, 70 were fired. "They told all of us in the work stoppage we were fired for insubordination," another worker, Barbaro Rosas Olibares, told FUJ organizer Maru Mora Villapando in a video interview. The CSI statement insists: "Eleven people were fired for questions of insubordination, which is a legal cause."
While most workers in the U.S. are covered by laws that make such retaliation for striking a legal violation, farmworkers generally have no such protection except in the few states, like California, that have given agricultural workers those rights. H2-A workers have even fewer rights and protections. The visa they're given when they come to work in the U.S. binds them to the employer who recruited them. If they lose that job, they lose the visa and become deportable. They have no legal standing to sue their employer in a U.S. court.
It was therefore remarkable that not only did the Sarbanand workers strike in protest over bad conditions, but that after they were fired they did not leave the country. The company told the fired workers they would not pay them immediately for their final four days of work, but instead would send a check to their address in Mexico -- a violation of H2-A regulations. The workers were given an hour to clear their belongings out of the company's labor camp, leaving them standing outside with no money.
Sarbanand's recruiter, CSI Visa Processing, took some to a local bus station, but didn't buy them a ticket home. This violates another H2-A recruitment regulation, which requires recruiters to pay transportation to and from the jobsite in the United States. In the meantime, workers reached out to union president Torres and also to Community2Community, a farmworker advocacy and immigrant rights organization in northwest Washington. Together, they found a private residence near the Sarbanand location, whose owners agreed to let the fired workers camp on their land while deciding on their next course of action. Local supporters brought out tents and a generator, and an encampment quickly sprang up.
The workers marched back to the ranch and demonstrated outside. "They formed a committee among themselves," Torres says, "and another 50 workers left the ranch and joined them, even though the [Whatcom County Sheriff] deputies and local police were threatening to call immigration."
Torres says other workers have suffered from partial facial paralysis, and three are now living at the camp. In the video interview, Rosas Olibares held a placard denouncing local authorities for turning a blind eye to their conditions. It read:
County & City - Your Blindness = GUILTY
- Suppression of immigrant workers rights
-Workers open to threats of deportation!
-Immigrant workers dying HERE/NOW
County & City - You are complicit through neglect!
How do you sleep at night?
According to H2-A worker Ramirez, "We just want respect for our rights - firing us was very unjust. We also want to continue working until the end of our contract." Ramirez has been working as a contratado for 15 years, picking tobacco in North Carolina and Kentucky, and for the last two years, blueberries in northwest Washington State. Last winter he signed a contract in the office of CSI Visa Processors in his hometown of Santiago Ixcuintla in the Mexican state of Nayarit. Under the terms of that contract he was guaranteed a minimum of five months of work, until October 25.
Ramirez was then taken to Nogales on the U.S.-Mexico border and given a visa. "But I saw that it was only good until June 30," he recalls. "When I asked, they said they'd fix it. But they never did."
Over 250 workers were recruited in the Nayarit office, he says, one of nine that CSI has in Mexico. They were brought to Delano, in California's San Joaquin Valley, on May 7. There they began picking blueberries at Munger Farms, a large grower and partner in the giant Naturipe growers partnership. Then, on July 1, the day after the visa of Ramirez and many others expired, they were transported to the Sarbanand Farms ranch in Washington State, where they continued picking. Sarbanand is a subsidiary of Munger Farms, owned by the family of Baldev and Kable Munger.
CSI's statement insists the workers "received an authorization by the government of the U.S. for this second contract, [and] none of them are out of legal status." Yet after the turmoil started last week, one worker tried to buy an airline ticket back home to Mexico, and was refused because his visa had expired. "We don't know what will happen now," Torres says. "What we believe is that workers have the right to protest and organize, and shouldn't be punished for that by being denied the work they were promised."
"I think we have to get organized," Ramirez adds. "I'm willing to work hard, but they put such pressure on us - that's the biggest problem. I have a 16-year-old son back home in Mexico. What would happen to him if I died here, like Honesto did?"