A federal lawsuit alleges that threats and intimidation of Mexican farmworkers last summer at a Whatcom County blueberry farm violated laws against human trafficking.
A lawsuit filed Thursday against a major U.S. blueberry grower and a recruiting company alleges that some 600 Mexican workers brought to a Whatcom County farm were subject to threats and intimidation that violated federal laws prohibiting human trafficking.
The lawsuit comes in the aftermath of a tense summer harvest at the farm near Sumasduring which one man became and ill and died, and dozens of workers then launched a one-day protest of harsh conditions that ended with their termination and eviction from the farm.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle names as defendants California-based Munger Bros., which describes itself as the largest blueberry producer in North America, Munger’s Whatcom County subsidiary Sarbanand Farms, and CSI Visa Processing.
The lawsuit alleges that a farm manager told workers that they had to be in the fields every day “unless they were on their death bed.” It does not allege that the worker’s death, which is now under investigation by state officials, resulted from the labor conditions. But it does cite workplace problems at the farm that included paltry, insufficient meals and water shortages during hot days of hard labor.
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The lawsuit also alleges that CSI recruited the workers without a license required by state law, and failed to disclose unlawful hourly production standards.
The attorneys taking the companies to court are Columbia Legal Services and the Seattle firm of Schroeter Goldmark & Bendem. The lawsuit names two workers as plaintiffs, Barbaro Rosas and Guadalupe Tapia, and requests certification as a class action.
Joe Morrison, a Columbia Legal Services attorney, said the eviction and firings had a devastating impact on workers who are now back in Mexico and concerned that they might face blacklisting that would prevent future U.S. farm work. He said the lawsuit was the result of a nearly seven-month investigation in the U.S. and Mexico, and would seek financial damages as well as a court order that would protect future workers.
Tom Pedreira, a Washingon attorney representing Sarbanand Farms and Munger, released a written statement that said the companies have been unjustly charged, and “will vigorously fight the allegations in the complaint, which will be shown to be untrue and without merit.”
“The facts are that operations at the Sarbanand farm in Washington are exemplary. They include modern housing, dining and worker facilities for the H-2A workers. All employees are treated well and are paid well …” the statement said.
In a statement emailed to the Lynden Tribune last August, Sarbanand Farms said that worker who died was a diabetic. He had run out of medicine and did not inform management of his condition or lack of medicine.
A representative of CSI could not be reached for comment.
The lawsuit involves foreign agriculture workers brought to America under the H-2A visa program, who are allowed to be hired only when U.S. labor cannot be found. They enter into temporary contracts less than a year in length that bind them to a single employer who must provide free housing.
As the illegal immigration of Mexican workers across the U.S. border has waned, these guest workers have become an increasingly important part of the workforce for farmers involved in labor-intensive crops, which include many fruits and vegetables. In Washington state, farmers and growers in 2017 requested more than 18,550 positions for H-2A workers, which is more than four times the number requested in 2012.
In Washington, the H-2A workers are entitled to a special minimum wage set last year at $13.38 per hour, and can make considerably more via piece rate. Proponents of the program say it offers good-paying job opportunities for foreign workers to come here legally, and is a vital source of labor for some farmers. Agricultural operations that have used H-2A workers include the Trump Winery, in Virginia, which is owned by Eric Trump, son of President Donald Trump.
Under the Trump administration, proponents of the program have been lobbying to loosen some of the regulations and make it easier to bring in more workers, and also backed legislative changes in Congress.
“We have hundreds of people wanting to get into the program. It is immensely popular with employers and workers, and CSI Visa Processing always has been very good with the workers,” said Dan Fazio, executive director of Wafla, a Washington-based organization that assists farms with the H-2A program. “This lawsuit is politically motivated by a group with an agenda against the legal worker program.”
But over the years, workers brought in under the program have sometimes ended up in conditions that violated their terms of contract.
In Washington a federal Labor Department investigation found that Northwestern Orchards, based in Tonasket, Okanogan County, had rejected a qualified U.S. job applicant and then failed to pay prevailing wages to the H-2A workers.
In a settlement of the case announced earlier this month, Northwestern agreed to pay $60,000 in back wages to 112 employees and an $18,000 penalty. The settlement also calls for Northwestern not to tell workers that “they can either work for less pay than required under their contract or return to their home country.”
Morrison, the Columbia Legal Services attorney, speaking to reporters Thursday in Seattle, called H-2A farmworkers the “most vulnerable and least protected” in the country, and said the program was ripe for abuse.
The lawsuit seeks to make the case that the threats against the workers led them to believe they would suffer “serious harm” unless they submitted to Sarbanand’s labor demands. It alleges that farm officials orchestrated a mass firing and eviction of some 70 H-2A workers without due process.
Those actions were taken in the aftermath of a worker named Honesto Silva Ibarra being taken by ambulance to a hospital.
Workers held a day strike on Aug. 4 seeking to improve safety and health conditions.
The next day, the lawsuit states, the workers involved in the protest were fired. They were told to leave the farm or else the police would be called, and given one hour to comply, the lawsuit alleges.
Ibarra died on Aug. 6.