Thursday, August 10, 2017

Labor tensions have erupted at Sarbanand Farms, a berry farm in Sumas, Washington after farmworker Honesto Silva Ibarra, died on Sunday

More than 70 workers, who were fired from Sarbanand Farms after they called attention to unfair and abusive work conditions, marched in protest Tuesday at the berry farm's management office in Sumas.

One worker, 28-year-old Honesto Ibarra, died last week.

"A farm worker died on our watch," said Rosalinda Guillen of the advocacy group Familias Unidas for la Justicia. "This is outrageous."

Demonstrators said Ibarra, a father of three, died after collapsing on the job. They told KING 5 News a neighbor took Ibarra to a clinic after he started suffering headaches while picking berries for Sarbanand Farms in Sumas.

The official cause of Ibarra's death has not been released. Supporters say even if it was not heat-related, Ibarra still did not get proper medical attention.

High heat and poor air quality plagued the farmlands all of last week. Protesters claimed Ibarra complained to his supervisors about feeling sick in the high heat but was told to return to work.

Norm Hartman, a spokesman for the farm, said the farm does not comment on "labor issues." When asked about the farmworker's death, he had no comment.

In addition to literally working a man to death in the fields, refusing him rest or medical attention until he callapsed, fell into a coma and died.... Sarbanand Farms also intentionally neglected to renew their guest worker's visas to basically create indentured servants that they can threaten with deportation anytime (and the inability to even apply for a visa again for 10yrs because 'they overstayed their visas'!) These legal guest workers have been refused translations of their contracts, and were given an hour to move off the farm when they dared demand enough food, water, and rest to not collapse dead in the field like their friend.... Over 80 homeless and (through no fault of their own, as the farmer is required by law to renew visas) undocumented immigrants now just trying to survive on a neighboring farmer's land.....after signing up for and trusting a legal government supported guest worker program....
Have you no shame??

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 H-2A 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.

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 H-2A 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 compaƱero 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 United States 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, H-2A workers at Sarbanand Farms had been complaining for weeks about bad food, temperatures in the nineties 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 (FUJ), which just signed its first union contract with Sakuma Brothers Farms in nearby Burlington, held its first convention that Friday. When the H-2A 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 United States 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. H-2A workers have even fewer rights and protections. The visa they’re given when they come to work in the United States 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 H-2A 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 H-2A 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 organization. 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?

H-2A worker Ramirez has been employed 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.”

More than 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?”


Labor tensions have erupted at a berry farm in Sumas, Washington, on the border with Canada. Advocates say more than 120 people have walked off the job after a worker fell ill and later died.

Harborview Medical Center officials confirm the man, Honesto Silva Ibarra, died on Sunday. His death has sparked questions and outrage among his fellow workers.

Men who worked the fields alongside Silva described him as 28 years old, married and a father of three children. He came to Washington for the blueberry harvest as a temporary worker from Mexico.

A video from a makeshift camp in Sumas, near the Canadian border, pans to several workers as they call out where they’re from in Mexico — Guanajuato, Nayarit, Michoacan. They were all brought here on the federal H-2A program to work at Sarbanand Farms.

“The only thing they wanted was to ask for information about his medical treatment,” says the voice behind the camera. It belongs to Ramon Torres, a leader with a farm union in Skagit Valley called Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

Advocates said Silva reportedly collapsed in the fields last week, then was in a coma at Harborview.

A fellow worker, Misael Gonzalez Montes, said Silva complained of a bad headache to company staff on at least two consecutive days last week and they did not offer any support.

Gonzalez said Silva tried to get a plane ticket back to Mexico but wasn’t able to take a flight because of an expired visa.

“After feeling really bad, he decided on his own to go to the hospital and paid for everything out of pocket because the company wouldn’t take him there," Gonzalez said.

As the workers sought answers about Silva's care, they said they also raised concerns about undercooked food and company policy that discouraged sick days.

“In order to be heard, we stopped working for one day so that the company would pay attention to our demands for this fellow worker,” said Barbaro Rosas Olivares, one of the H-2A workers at Sarbanand Farms.

“We also wanted explanation about why we’ve spent more than a month working for this company without visas,” Rosas said.

Rosas said the workers who participated in strike were promptly fired in retaliation and given one hour to clear out of the farm housing.

H-2A worker, Misael Gonzalez, said he was fired after complaining about poor conditions at Sarbanand Farms.
Credit Facebook photo

“It is a labor issue and we do not comment on such matters,” said Norm Hartman, a spokesman for Sarbanand Farms. “We hope that the issues can be resolved soon.”

Tim Church, a spokesman for the Washington State Department of Labor, said the agency is looking into the fatality to assess any potential workplace safety factors.

“We want to know more,” Church said, to determine if a formal inspection is warranted.

The Mexican consulate in Seattle is also looking into the situation.

The King County Medical Examiner has not yet released information about Silva’s cause of death.

In the meantime, the H-2A workers are camped out less than two miles from Sarbanand Farms. Videos show dozens of donated tents, suitcases on tarps, a fridge and coolers packed in the yard.

The workers are consulting with an attorney. It's unclear if they will return to work or to Mexico.

Washington is one of the top five states that uses the H-2A farm labor program, with 13,689 jobs approved in 2016.