This is a guest column by Dillon Honcoop, who grew up on a Lynden-area raspberry farm and now works for Save Family Farming as coordinator of the Protect Farmworkers Now project.
It’s important to tell the truth, especially when many people’s jobs and livelihoods are on the line. That’s why it’s so troubling to see activists and their sympathizers continue to spread an insidious lie in our community.
Last summer, a worker at a Sumas blueberry farm was rushed to the hospital after having run out of his medication days earlier. Honesto Silva Ibarra tragically passed away at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
An exhaustive Washington Department of Labor & Industries investigation reported that the farm was in no way responsible for Mr. Silva Ibarra’s death, but that truth is apparently an inconvenient one for activist labor groups like Bellingham-based Community to Community Development, which wanted to capitalize on news coverage of the tragedy to further their labor organizing efforts. They have falsely claimed that “degraded conditions” and management failure caused Mr. Silva Ibarra’s death, going so far as to label it “corporate murder,” and continuing to do so even after L&I’s investigation proved them wrong.
A recent letter to the Tribune from a concerned citizen perhaps inadvertently continues this pervasive lie. “A young H2A worker died due to poor working conditions and management oversight,” Naomi Murphy wrote in the letter printed May 9. It’s one thing to express genuine concern for the workers, it’s another to continue to make false statements when the truth is out there for all to see. Either Ms. Murphy is entirely ignorant of the facts of the tragedy or she’s intentionally communicating false and harmful accusations.
It’s deeply troubling that activist labor groups continue to claim in interviews, social media, website posts and elsewhere that, among other mistreatment of workers the Sumas farm caused the worker’s death. Their pressure on Labor & Industries and publicity they generated caused the department to issue a fine 40 times greater than one normally assessed for rest and meal break violations. It is shameful for a department to punish a farm based on lies communicated about them, especially when they themselves determined the accusations to be lies!
The H-2A program, despite activists’ claims that it amounts to “virtual slavery,” provides some of the best worker protections anywhere, including good wages, subsidized meals, and free housing and transportation. The employer has to make sure that the worker returns home after completing the work. If a worker can go from one farm to another, the employer can’t be expected to pay for transportation and housing, and prevention of illegal immigration becomes impossible.
The activists seek to establish farmworker unions. It’s a free country and people can pursue whatever agenda they want. But this agenda hurts workers because it takes away jobs they very much need, hurts consumers by rapidly increasing the amount of food we import, and hurts farmers through the vicious lies and political pressure. Workers are exceptionally well protected, as the massive fine against the farm for break violations shows. What other business do you know would be fined $150,000 for a few late rest or meal breaks? It’s time for those to care about these farmworkers to tell Community to Community, the activist group behind this, that enough is enough.