BURLINGTON — Labor unrest between a Skagit Valley berry farm and its migrant workers that led to recent work stoppages escalated Wednesday with workers saying they have been evicted from the farm’s housing.
Early morning talks over wages between the 270 workers and Sakuma Bros. Farms apparently broke down after the two sides could not come to an agreement over what they should be paid per pound for the blueberries they pick.
The striking farm workers, mostly indigenous Mixteco and Trique Mexicans who migrate each year from California, had made repeated demands over wages, working conditions and other issues.
But at the core of their angst is the pending arrival early next month of some 160 guest workers from Mexico to prop up the farm’s existing workforce.
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“There’ve been rumblings … (over guest workers) in the past, but I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” said Alberto Isiordia, state monitor advocate for the state Department of Employment Security.
While growers in Eastern Washington have used the federal government’s H-2A program over the last five years to legally bring guest workers into the country, this is the first year Sakuma or any Western Washington fruit grower will use it.
Many of the Sakuma farmworkers — who don’t speak English or Spanish — say they are in the country unlawfully.
On Tuesday, they met to establish an organization called Families United for Justice to advocate their concerns.
The workers aren’t convinced there’s a labor shortage and believe the company would have no trouble finding workers if it paid them more and improved conditions.
Francisco Eugenio Paz, who has been picking for Sakuma almost every year since 2001, said workers worry that the new workers will be paid more and have better living conditions.
“There are a lot of people who are working here already,” Paz said.
Once the guest workers arrive, the wages of all the workers will be brought up to the $12-an-hour rate, according to Dan Fazio, of the Washington Farm Labor Association, the labor contactor for the Sakuma guest workers.
At Sakuma’s processing facility not far from the camp where striking workers were organizing, owner Steve Sakuma was focused on how to get workers back on the job.
A prolonged work stoppage could severely harm Sakuma, where branches of blueberries in the fields were drooping to the ground.
Sakuma said the farm needs guest workers to avoid a repeat from earlier this year, when 150 tons of strawberries went unpicked, and last year, when 15 acres of blackberries rotted in the fields.
It’s also a way to ensure a legal workforce. It is believed that well over half of all farmworkers in the state are in the country unlawfully.
Hiring undocumented farmworkers, Sakuma said, presents a liability for the farm.
“If we put them on our rolls and they’re not (legal) the government doesn’t take responsibility for that, we do,” he said.
How program works
Increasingly in recent years, growers across the state — mostly with apple and cherry orchards in Eastern Washington — have used the H-2A guest-worker program to bring legal workers into the U.S.
They are required by law to pay transportation costs to get workers here and once here, to pay for them to get to and from their jobs. They must provide free housing, and to ensure their presence doesn’t depress local wages, foreign workers are paid an “adverse-effect” wage rate, which for Washington state is $12 this year, one of the highest in the country.
State and federal agencies run job ads to recruit other workers for the jobs, not just here in this state but across the country, ahead of the guest workers’ arrival.
The state on Tuesday halted recruitment for Sakuma, saying it’s against state policy to interfere in a labor dispute.
But growers say broadening use of the program statewide has become necessary in an industry where many workers are aging or have bolted for other, higher-paying job sectors such as construction. Increasingly, federal enforcement of hiring laws has left many farmworkers unwilling to migrate from state to state for work.
Henry Bierlink, executive director of the Washington Red Raspberry Commission, said while the labor shortage has not hit a crisis, farmers have a smaller pool of workers from which to choose and recruiting foreign workers has started to look more attractive.
This year, the federal government approved applications for more than 5,000 guest workers from Jamaica and Mexico — many of whom are already working in fields across the state. The number is up 44 percent from a year ago, with applications still pending.
While growers in Western Washington have long depended on migrant labor — whole families of farmworkers with children who follow the seasonal demands of harvests from Texas, through California and Washington — the apple and cherry orchards in Eastern Washington have benefited from a more local workforce.
On both sides of the mountains, growers worry about the labor supply.
In a prepared statement explaining the need for guest workers, the company said it was short by up to 150 workers for last year’s blackberry harvest and short again this year when it came time to pick strawberries.
“Because of the overall shortage of labor in Washington last year, many of the workers we expected … did not show up,” the company said.
“It was unfortunate that even with advertising in newspapers and radio, we didn’t get the workers we needed. Work was available and the berries were plentiful.”
At a farmworker camp near Burlington where the striking workers live with their families, several played basketball or congregated around picnic tables Tuesday discussing the latest in negotiations.
The workers first struck Sakuma two weeks ago, outlining a list of demands before they would return to work.
Some of their grievances were a result of cultural conflicts among the workers that led to accusations of disrespect, which they say the company addressed.
They had concerns over farm housing, which is inspected by the state. They sought overtime pay, which by law is not required, plus adequate child care and a change in the way their wages are calculated.
The workers reached agreement with the company on some issues and returned to work last week. But talks broke down over the weekend on some remaining issues and they walked out again Monday.
The stickiest issue has been over how much they are paid per box of berries picked.
Paz said workers are now paid a piece-rate of 30 cents per pound, which workers say in the end does not equal minimum wage. They are asking instead for 70 cents a pound.
They have not filed a wage complaint with the state Department of Labor & Industries.
Sakuma said a rate of 70 cents a pound is too much and at the current rate workers already earn $12 an hour.
“If I could give them that kind of money, I would,” he said.
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or email@example.com.
On Twitter @turnbullL.