Mexican Workers Accuse Major U.S. Berry Farm of Threats, Intimidation

SEATTLE ( The Seattle Times/TNS) -

A lawsuit filed last week against a major U.S. blueberry grower and a recruiting company alleges that some 600 Mexican workers brought to a Whatcom County, Wash., 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 Sumas, Washington, where 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.

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 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, said he had not seen a copy of the complaint, and thus could not comment on its allegations. His written statement said Sarbanand takes “seriously its responsibilities with respect to worker safety and is committed to the well-being of H-2A employees who work at the farm … Operations at the farm in Sumas include modern housing, dining and worker facilities. The company believes the lawsuit will be shown to be without merit.”

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.

Morrison, the Columbia Legal Services attorney, speaking to reporters Thursday in Seattle, calld 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 Ibarra being taken by ambulance to a hospital.

Workers held a one-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.