August 7, 2017


Sarbanand Farm workers fired following protest over co-worker’s treatment


By Ashley Hiruko


SUMAS — More than 70 farmworkers are currently displaced after being fired for refusing to work as a demonstration against a deceased co-worker’s treatment.

Honesto Silva Ibarra, 28, was a temporary worker for Sarbanand Farm, a Sumas blueberry grower. He became ill, suffering from head pains. But after Ibarra notified his supervisor of his sickness last week, he was denied medical attention by the company, said co-worker Barbaro Rosas Olibares.

Instead, Ibarra sought out other options, seeking a flight home to Mexico, but was unable to purchase a ticket due to a work visa that had expired on June 30, Olibares said. He added that the company had said they were working on extending the H-2A temporary visas that the employees held. Some of the workers had been relocated from a farm in California to the Sumas farm.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, H-2A classification may be extended for qualifying employment in increments of up to one year. The responsibility falls on the employer to renew the work visa.

Unable to wait any longer, Ibarra soon sought out medical attention at a Bellingham clinic. He later collapsed and died after being admitted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle due to dehydration. Other farmworkers at the same farm have since suffered from illness including face paralysis, farmworkers alleged.

Numerous farmworkers employed by Sarbanand decided to strike on Friday, refusing to work due to the alleged mistreatment of their co-worker, and the treatment of others who worked for the company, Olibares said. Workers have complained about being “threatened to be sent back to Mexico” if performance measures weren’t met and food portions and conditions were poor, they said.

“For us, it was very unjust that he was left by himself without any kind of support,” Olibares said. “And in regards to that, in order to be heard, we decided to stop working one day so that way we could be heard by the company.”

When workers who had protested showed up for work on Saturday morning, they were fired due to “insubordination” and told they had an hour to leave the premises and farmworker housing they had been living in.

Farm representative Norm Hartman declined to comment or confirm these reports. “We are aware of the situation,” he wrote in an email. “It is a labor issue and we do not comment on such matters other than to say we hope the issues can be resolved.”

Munger Farms is the parent operation of Sarbanand Farm and is located in California. 

Sarbanand farmworkers who were fired were left without valid visas and without a way to work legally or return home, they said.

“They left us pretty much (homeless), outdoors, without money and no place to go,” farmworker Cristo Rodriguez said.

But there has been community outreach. A local resident allowed those who were asked to leave the camp a place to reside. Camping supplies including tents and blankets, food, gas for a generator and medical supplies are just some of the items community members brought out to the plot of land in Sumas where the workers are currently staying.

“It’s not only about us. There were about 80 people who left,” farmworker Pablo Vicente said. “The people who are still working with their visas there, they are afraid still. Those who remain working there, they have told us they’re afraid of leaving, but they’re also tired. We don’t know what they’ve been told.”

The group of workers are seeking justice, they said. They are hoping to receive four days worth of pay they were never compensated for and visas renewed so that they could continue working.

“We’re here to work,” said Olibares. “We’re not here to ask for anything. We want to earn our own money based on our own efforts. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we came in the first place.”