SEATTLE — An employment-law class-action lawsuit was filed in federal court on Thursday, Jan. 25, against Sarbanand Farms of Sumas. The action by Columbia Legal Services and law firm Schroeter, Goldmark & Bender claims violations of state and federal laws by the blueberry growing operation.
Legal papers against three parties — Sarbanand Farms, parent company Munger Bros. LLC. of California and Mexican labor company CSI Visa Processing — allege violations of federal anti-trafficking laws through use of threats to intimidate workers to comply with “unlawful work demands.”
A statement from Munger Bros. says that the company and Sarbanand Farms have been unjustly charged and plan to “vigorously fight” the allegations in the filing. They claim these charges will be found untrue.
“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,” reads a statement from the Munger company. “All the Munger companies take seriously their responsibilities with respect to worker safety and they are committed to the wellbeing of every one of their workers. There are also comprehensive compliance programs in place to comply with all laws and regulations governing the workplace.”
The large blueberry farm based at 4625 Rock Rd. east of Sumas is also the subject of an ongoing investigation by labor agencies into the Aug. 6, 2017 death of a 28-year-old Mexican temporary farmworker there hired through the federal H-2A program.
The class-action lawsuit doesn’t directly bring up issues surrounding farmworker Honesto Silva Ibarra’s death. Instead, it focuses on working conditions allegedly experienced by his colleagues. The case is on behalf of potentially about 600 foreign H-2A workers hired for Sarbanand Farms in 2017.
After Ibarra fell ill while under contract with Sarbanand, around 70 others employed at the farm protested their working conditions and demanded information on Ibarra. When they refused to work one day, they were given an hour to vacate the farm premises, farmworkers said at the time.
In a written statement two days after the death, Sarbanand said that Ibarra had a diabetic condition he had not disclosed earlier, that the company did everything possible to help Ibarra after learning of his illness, and that it followed confidentiality laws in not putting out more information on Ibarra’s situation as it developed.
In this legal action, a top management official of Sarbanand is alleged to have told farmworkers at the start of the blueberry harvest that they had to be in the field working every day “unless they were on their deathbed.”
“The most important piece of information to understand is that H-2A agricultural workers are the most vulnerable and least protected farmworkers in our country,” said attorney Joe Morrison, of Columbia Legal Services, a Seattle-based advocacy nonprofit, during a press conference on Thursday morning. “H-2A workers are more vulnerable and have fewer legal rights in this country than undocumented farmworkers.”
The Federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act has been used in other cases involving H-2A workers, Morrison said. A lawsuit of three plaintiffs brought against an eastern Washington sheep rancher in 2013 alleged that Max Fernandez committed offenses by isolating ranch workers and threatening them with deportation.
This is the first time the law has been used in a class-action lawsuit in Washington, however, Morrison said.
Foreign workers coming under “guestworker” H-2A visas are not covered under anti-retaliation provisions guaranteed by the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, Morrison said.
CSI Visa Processing is being sued on infractions of the Washington Farm Labor Contractor Act that require contractors to be licensed. The plaintiffs also allege that CSI failed to inform workers of pay for daily meals that would exceed the $12 deducted from paychecks by the farm.
With respect to Ibarra’s death, the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries has said that its investigation into Ibarra’s death should be concluded in early February.