The lawsuit alleges Sarbanand Farms violated by Trafficking Victims Protection Act through threats and implied threats that the workers would be sent to Mexico if they complained or did not meet production standards. The company has denied wrongdoing.
A U.S. District Court judge in Seattle on Thursday certified a class-action lawsuit on behalf of some 600 Mexican workers who have alleged labor abuses at a Whatcom County blueberry farm.
The lawsuit alleges the company violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which forbids forced labor, through threats and implied threats that the workers would be sent to Mexico if they complained or did not meet production standards.
The lawsuit’s other allegations include that Sarbanand Farms breached its contract with workers by providing low-quality food and violated Washington law by firing workers who staged a one-day strike.
Unless a settlement is reached, the ruling by U.S. District Judge John Coughenour sets the stage for a jury trial in a case filed by Columbia Legal Services on behalf of the farmworkers brought to work at Sarbanand Farms under the H-2A visa program.
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Sarbanand Farms, in court filings, has denied all allegations.
Tom Pedreira, the company’s general counsel, noted that the judge’s ruling is not a finding of any wrongdoing, and that Sarbanand Farms “takes seriously its responsibilities with respects to working conditions and worker safety.”
Joe Morrison, a Columbia Legal Service attorney, said workers are unlikely to file individual suits, and the judge — after reviewing evidence — has found that “it needs to be brought as a class-action.”
The lawsuit results from a tense blueberry harvest in August 2017. One worker, 28-year-old Honesto Ibarra, fell ill on Aug. 2 and died after being taken in a hospital. Then on Aug. 4, some 60 workers went on strike, and lost their jobs.
An autopsy found that Ibarra died of a natural cause. In an investigation, the state Department of Labor & Industries did not find that Sarbanand Farms was at fault for his death but did find violations related to late meals and missed employee breaks.
Coughenour, citing declarations that were filed in the case, wrote that “several workers became ill from food provided by the Defendant … and spent personal funds to avoid becoming sick.”
Defendants in the lawsuit also include CSI Visa Processing, which faces allegations that it recruited workers without a license required by state law, and failed to disclose unlawful hourly production standards.