The defendants named in the lawsuit include Larson Orchards and Wafla, an Olympia-based organization that assists growers in bringing H-2A farmworkers to the Pacific Northwest.
Seventeen Mexican guest workers who went on a six-day strike at a Central Washington apple orchard have been blacklisted, alleges a lawsuit that says their exclusion from work this year violates an agreement that settled the labor dispute.
Columbia Legal Services filed the lawsuit Thursday in state Superior Court in Yakima on behalf of Familias Unidas Por La Justica, a Northwest farmworker’s union that assisted the Mexico workers in negotiating their settlement.
The strike at orchards near Quincy, Grant County, followed a series of complaints ranging from a scarcity of toilet paper to verbal abuse from a supervisor. It represented a rare flexing of bargaining muscle by an increasingly important part of the Washington farm-labor force: Foreign guest workers who come to the U.S. under temporary H-2A visas and generally have been reluctant to protest for fear of being sent back home.
The defendants named in the lawsuit include Larson Orchards and the Washington Farm Labor Association (WAFLA), a Washington organization that assists growers in bringing H-2A farmworkers to the Pacific Northwest.
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All 17 workers who went on strike signed the settlement document, according to Joe Morrison, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services. That document included a provision that Larson would not allow retaliation against anyone involved in the work stoppage and would tell WAFLA to comply with the agreement.
An attorney representing Larson said the fruit company made no effort to prevent the return of the 17 workers.
“They (Larson) did not blacklist anyone,” said Sara Wixson, who is representing Larson Orchards. “They did nothing to preclude their employment in anyway.”
WAFLA’s executive director, Dan Fazio, in a written statement, said his organization did not sign the settlement agreement. He also said WAFLA was never notified by the plaintiffs of their attorneys about any issue regarding the workers, and therefore, “We can’t comment on the claims here.”
“We conduct training for employers and workers about their rights and responsibilities about H2-A. Along those lines, we will try to understand the issues and work toward a mutually agreeable solution,” the statement said.
The 2018 farm-labor season for H-2A workers is now well underway.
At the Quincy orchards, Larson Fruit hired four Mexican workers employed in 2017 who did not go on strike as well as 32 new workers, according to the lawsuit.
Morrison said none of the strike participants were invited back even though they went to a recruiter’s office in Mexico multiple times and asked about employment.
“They were told their names weren’t on the list or the employer hasn’t asked for you back,” Morrison said. “ If these workers don’t get reinstated, then it says to every ag (agricultural) employer, you can rid of these workers whenever you want — and do so with impunity … They take a huge risk to speak up about working conditions.”