REAL CHANGE

August 16, 2017

 

Eighty farmworkers stuck in US fighting poor working conditions

 

By Ashley Archibald

 

Lucia Suarez sat perched on a plastic chair next to the driveway of the single-family home she shares with her husband, Joaquin, and their three children in Sumas, Washington, a rural farming community that abuts the Canadian border. A pile of black plastic garbage bags filled to bursting with clothing and other donated items dwarfed the small woman.

A team of volunteers would have to go through this and similar piles that dotted her large front yard, separating out worn items and those meant for women and children. There were neither women nor children among the group of 80 men Suarez and other volunteers had come to support. Those men formed a semicircle in the shaded, grassy yard around a folding table at which sat a representative from the Mexican consulate on Aug. 10. No one, including Suarez and a farm worker organizer, knew or was willing to discuss exactly why the representative had come, but it likely pertained to why the community had moved onto her property in the first place.

The men, all in the United States on agricultural visas, had been fired after a work stoppage in protest of conditions at Sarbanand Farms they said had left many of them sick, some injured and one dead. Honesto Silva Ibarra died at Harborview Medical Center Aug. 6 after working under oppressive heat and breathing the smoke drifting over the border from fires in Canada.

The farm spokesperson and its parent company have not returned calls for comment.

Now the men — called contratados — are trapped in the United States with no source of income on visas they say are expired, safe only on Suarez’s property. Leaving the home without proper paperwork could end in deportation, potentially cutting off the opportunity to return to the country to work farms in the future. They fear that they cannot purchase airline tickets to return home if their visas are expired, although attorneys could not confirm that first hand. They worried that taking a bus down to the border poses potential hazards.

On Aug. 15 and 16, between 25 and 30 of the workers were expected to be on planes heading to Guadalajara, Mexico, paid for by the farm. The remaining workers chose to stay to resolve visa issues or make their own way home. They did not trust the farm, said Maru Mora Villalpando, a spokesperson for Community to Community Development, an organization helping the workers.

None of this is novel. Folks whose families came to the United States to pick the berries and other produce in the 1960s reported similar working conditions. The 1980s were no different. Even Ibarra’s death was shocking but not surprising to many.

“This is nothing new to us,” said Joaquin Martinez, who came to support the workers. “This is business as usual.”

In the heat
The events leading to the arrival of the contratados at the Suarez residence transpired in three days.

Ibarra, a 28-year-old married father of three, reported that he had headaches and felt poorly. He asked for help, but a fellow farm worker said the company didn’t provide a nurse or other medical care at the farm. Ibarra worked part of the day Aug. 3 but eventually couldn’t continue.

Ibarra took himself to a medical clinic and was transported to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. He fell into a coma and died Sunday.

Mauricio Rosales Ruiz, 51, said that Ibarra tried to buy a plane ticket so that he could “die in Mexico,” but was denied because his visa had expired. Visas can be acquired and renewed only by the company that hires foreign workers.

Farm management called the workers into a meeting on Aug. 3 near midnight to tell the other contratados about the situation, said Edgar Franks, an organizer with Community to Community Development.

The next day, the men refused to work in protest, believing that the farm should have helped Ibarra. When they reported back to work on Saturday, they were told that they were fired and had to sign a form written in English that they could not understand, Franks said.

The management gave them one hour to gather their things and get off the property. Management said that there was a bus to take them to Bellingham, Franks said, but many decided not to take that option.

Suarez’ husband, Joaquin, received a call from one of the men after the incident. Many of the men have worked in Sumas before, and the Suarez family had met them in a local restaurant five years earlier. The Suarez residence is a 20- to 25-minute walk from Sarbanand Farms, and the men who refused the bus service were on foot.

Joaquin Suarez made several trips back and forth, picking up the men and their luggage and transporting them to the home where they set up a community of tents and a cooking station in the front and back of the home.

The Suarez family had taken the week off to go camping at Deception Pass, but canceled their plans to provide the men a place to stay, Lucia Suarez said. Her children expressed dismay, not at the cancelation, but at the treatment of the men who quickly became their neighbors.

“They said, ‘I can’t believe that someone would do this to them,’” Lucia said. “I told them this happens to people all over the world.”

Serving up justice
Calls to protest the firings began circulating the Saturday that the men were told to leave the farm. People marched from the Suarez residence to the farm on Aug. 7. Supporters brought donations of food, clothing, water and medical supplies. Someone brought in portable toilets and  the local high school agreed to allow the men to take showers in its facilities, Lucia Suarez said.

By Aug. 10, a community of tents had popped up in the front and back of the residence and the camp had enough food to last at least three or four days.

In the makeshift kitchen at the corner of the property, Maria Gallado instructed some of the contratados to slice up green chilis for the caldo con chile verde that would be served later in the day.

Gallado worked with efficiency and professionalism, slicing melon that would be handed out for snacks before tackling a tub of chicken for the caldo.

Gallado used to prepare meals for the men at the farm but said she was fired for giving them too much food and complaining about the unsanitary conditions.

She described flies buzzing around food preparation areas, undercooked chicken and workers without food handler’s permits.

Workers provided a photo of a typical lunch: what appeared to be tortilla chips sitting on lettuce next to some macaroni and cheese in a Styrofoam container. Ivan Andrade, a 30-year-old contratado, showed Real Change a similar photo of several Styrofoam containers all filled with the same food.

He said it was one of the better meals provided to the workers who were out in the fields picking berries for up to 13 hours a day in the heat and hazy air, smoky from the wildfires raging in British Columbia.

They received warm water to drink and many became ill.

“They have regulations about when you’re in the heat or something, but they didn’t follow them,” Andrade said.

Mauricio Rosales Ruiz received his last paycheck at the Suarez residence after he was fired. It was missing two days’ worth of pay, he said. He pointed to a line marked “Meals.” Over the course of his time at the farm, the company charged him $337.96 for the food served.

The workers dealt not just with physical pain, but mental stress, Andrade and Ruiz said. Supervisors kept up a constant refrain of threats to send them back to Mexico if they didn’t work harder, faster. That clearly bothered Ruiz.

“We didn’t come here as mojados,” he said. The term translates literally as “wet,” and is used to describe people who cross the border without papers. “We came legally, to work.”

Temporary workers
All of the contratados living at the Suarez residence came to the United States on H-2A visas, which is specific to agricultural work.

Workers in Mexico can’t apply for such a visa. Instead, farms in the United States have to go through a process in which they declare that they cannot find enough domestic workers to harvest their crops. They petition the federal government for visas to bring people in from Mexico and other countries on a temporary basis.

A firm in Mexico recruits agricultural workers who have no discretion over where they go or what kind of work they will do.

The Washington State Employment Security Department received 208 H-2A applications on behalf of the federal Department of Labor in 2017. That covers 18,554 workers and is up from 146 applications for 13,148 workers the previous year.

Community to Community Development said that Sarbanand Farms had 620 H-2A workers this season.

Companies are responsible for obtaining and renewing the visas.

Andrea Schmidt, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services (CLS), said that Sarbanand Farms, owned by Munger Farms LLC out of Delano, California, did not distribute new visas.

“It appears they originally applied for these folks to work in California,” Schmidt said. “The workers never received new visas for the period for which they were working in Washington.”

As of Aug. 15, it was not clear if visa concerns had been resolved, although an official with the Department of Labor indicated that the men would not have difficulty leaving by plane, Schmidt said.

Several of the men have worked for this company in the past, and they say that they never encountered problems.

Organizers in the labor community argue that they should never have been at the mercy of the company in the first place.

Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community to Community Development, believes that the H-2A visa is an instrument to displace domestic workers and would rather see a system that allowed foreign workers to choose their own employer.

The current system is exploitative, said Edgar Franks.

“They take advantage of the need of the workers to provide for their families,” he said.

Waiting for home
For the time being, the men wait and wonder what’s ahead.

This is the second year that Andrade has come to the United States on an H-2A visa. Ruiz has been using the program since 2002. They both fear that the end result of their advocacy will mean the end of this life, which, while painful, is how they survive.

“We’re on file,” Ruiz said. “We’re burned for the rest of our lives.” Joaquin Martinez, the agricultural worker who came to support the men, speculated that the company will try to throw the workers under the bus and describe them as “disgruntled.” But people have died, he said, and 80 men didn’t collude to disparage the company.

“Entre el cielo y la tierra, nada es ocludo,” Martinez said, reciting an adage.

Between the sky and the earth, nothing is hidden.