KING-TV (Seattle)

August 8, 2017

 

Protesters demand accountability for farmworker's death, labor conditions in Sumas

 

By Eric Wilkinson

 

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.

Through an interpreter, co-worker Carlos Crespo said it happens all the time.

"Every time you want to complain," he said, "they threaten to send you back to Mexico."

The workers were recruited under the H2A program, which is also known as a guest worker program.

The Department of Labor and Industries said they'd heard similar reports, but they're still investigating the claims to make an independent confirmation.

The Tuesday march in Sumas was to demand accountability for the farm worker's death and to demand payment of their owed wages, according to a news release from the Latino Advocacy organization.

Guest workers also marched on Monday at the Whatcom County Courthouse.

Workers said they were fired after protesting the lack of food, cold water and sanitary working conditions at Sarbanand Farms.

They've all ended up homeless since being fired -- camping in a good Samaritan's back yard and living on donations from the community.

A search of state records turned up only a few minor health and safety violations at Sarbanand in recent years.