August 12, 2017


Farmworker’s death to be investigated


By Ashley Hiruko


WHATCOM — The Aug. 6 death of a Mexican worker from Sarbanand Farms of Sumas has opened up levels of government investigation into the circumstances of the death including divergent accounts as to exactly what happened.


Honesto Silva Ibarra was a 28-year-old temporary farmworker operating under an H-2A work visa at the Sumas blueberry farm. Co-workers allege that Ibarra was denied needed medical attention by his employer upon becoming ill in a week of hot weather. The farm says it first learned of Ibarra’s diabetic condition at noon Aug. 2, immediately called 911 and got Ibarra to a hospital accompanied by his nephew. The sick man was transported to Harborview Medical Center of Seattle, where he died.


At least two agencies, Washington State Labor and Industries and the U.S. Department of Labor, have opened investigations, but those could take months to be completed.


Contrasting claims

Barbaro Rosas Olibares, one of four farmworkers the Lynden Tribune spoke with, claims that working conditions at the farm were poor and that threats were made against the workers.


He and others at the farm protested the treatment of Ibarra as well as these conditions on Friday, Aug. 4. The next day, at least 70 farmworkers were fired due to “insubordination” and told to leave the Sarbanand premises within an hour. They have been camped on a nearby location, “Zapata Camp,” on Telegraph Road south of Sumas.


Their temporary H-2A visas, and that of Ibarra, had expired around June 30. Olibares said management claimed to be working on extending the permits, but the lapse meant Ibarra was unable to return home due to an expired visa. Sarbanand counters, saying Ibarra was in no physical condition to fly to Mexico and if he were they would have assisted on a flight.


The chief administrative officer of Sarbarand Farms, Cliff Woolley, gave the company’s account of what happened in an email to the Tribune on Aug. 8. In addition to getting Ibarra to medical care, the company also notified his family in Mexico by the time he was “transferred by helicopter” to Harborview, Woolley said. He believes the information he provided the Tribune will eventually be proven correct.


Woolley also said no complaints were made in connection with Ibarra before the Friday strike.


But Community to Community Development, an advocate organization for immigrant rights assisting the Sarbanand farmworkers, finds these claims “outrageous.”  


“(That) this company feels that they can get away with this publicly makes me think, what kinds of things are going on with this farm that we are not seeing?” said Maru Mora Villalpando, core member of C2C.


Cause of death

The farmworkers released by Sarbanand Farms allege poor working conditions as a factor in Ibarra’s death. Woolley says Ibarra died from complications due to diabetes. 


A representative of the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, where an autopsy would be performed, said Thursday that Ibarra’s death was reported to the office, but it does not have jurisdiction to do an autopsy when no suspicious circumstances are involved. 


Other media outlets have stated the hospital Ibarra was treated at reported he died of “natural causes,” a common description for those who die in medical facilities. 


Woolley said Friday that Ibarra’s body was on its way back to Mexico.


Investigations begin

The investigations that are underway are to ensure that no workers’ rights were violated. The effort of the Washington Department of Labor and Industries began on Aug. 9.


Labor and Industries had heard preliminary reports of what was happening at Sarbanand Farms earlier in the Aug. 4-6 weekend, said Tim Church, department spokesman. L&I conferred with other state agencies including the departments of Health and Employment Security and gathered information for a couple of days before deciding.


“[When we] launch these investigations, it opens up our authority to come in and request documents and really wade into this and understand what is going on,” Church said.


The department is directing two investigations, one being of safety and health concerns and the other a standard employment investigation.


Of the first, Church said, “We’re looking into if that was a work-related death and, if so, were there workplace safety violations involved?” The department has up to six months by law to conclude this investigation.


The second investigation, which takes around 90 days, is focused on the treatment of employees on the job and will look into whether the farmworkers were receiving appropriate meals, rest periods and pay, he said.


Munger Farms, a large marketer of nuts and berries in Delano, California, is within the scope of the employment standards probe due to its connection to Sarbanand Farms, Church said. The other investigation, for now, is focused on Sarbanand only.


Leo Kay, of the U.S. Department of Labor, also confirmed Thursday that its Wage and Hour Division has opened an investigation into the Sarbanand situation.  


A representative from the Consulate of Mexico in Seattle visited the Sumas area to talk with those affected, the consulate said in a news release.


Workers’ rights

The H-2A legal worker program has grown dramatically on the West Coast, said Dan Fazio, executive director and CEO of the WAFLA (formerly the Washington Farm Labor Association), which “facilitates a legal and stable workforce for seasonal employers in the Pacific Northwest.” He said other farms in Whatcom County besides Sarbanand use H-2A farmworkers, but he would not name them.


“The workers absolutely love the program,” Fazio said. “Labor unions don’t like the program.”


Normally, H-2A contracts have a progressive discipline process, he said, which in most cases provides employees their transportation home if there is a separation or resignation from work. 


The H-2A regulation does not require employers to provide transportation home if a worker is terminated for cause.


Woolley said that according to the contracts signed by Sarbanand Farms workers, if they chose to leave and go home early, it would be at their own expense.


Of the H-2A program, Maru said Community to Community believes it should end and be replaced by one that allows farmworkers to seek different farm employers. 


H-2A employees signed onto a contract arranged by one employer are not able to work for another — they can only work for the company that transported them to the U.S., she said. Employees become dependent on their employer and that “creates the perfect conditions to be exploited,” she said.


“We believe that the [H-2A program] legalizes slavery,” Villalpando said. “We have been against this program for a long time.”


The Sarbanand employees who were fired are now trying to return home, she said, and they are thankful for the community’s reponse. “[The farmworkers] keep asking us to tell everyone that they’re really thankful for the support.”


Other response

Whatcom Family Farmers issued a statement Aug. 10 extending condolences to family and friends on the Ibarra death while also urging media caution in reporting on the farmworkers’ situation.


“As farmers we understand how hard this can hit everyone involved,” said Brad Rader, berry farmer and president of the group. “Many of our farm employees have been with the same farm and farmer for many years and really become part of the family.”


Fred Likkel, executive director, said some reporting on the cause of death has been distressing. “No one knows the cause for certain and we may not know for some time until investigations are complete,” Likkel said. “We don’t think it is appropriate or even responsible for reporters to repeat accusations that place the blame on the farmer without doing more investigating.”