WAFLA helped mediate issues after walkout at county berry farm
WHATCOM — More foreign farmworker activism hit the rural county on Sunday, Aug. 19, as community members lined Old Guide Road with signs in support of workers objecting to their labor conditions.
About 60 temporary Crystal View Raspberry Farm workers in the federal H2A program refused to work Sunday, alleging they had not been paid for their work on time as specified in their contracts. They also claimed they face excessive production quotas.
The two-day farmworker protest at Crystal View Farms ended Tuesday, after Monday negotiations involving two representatives from the Washington Farm Labor Association, the farm owner and temporary workers — with the aid of Community to Community Development, a grassroots organization in support of farmworkers.
“The contract was not being respected and workers didn’t feel safe reaching out to anyone because of the (deportation) threats,” said Edgar Franks of C2C. “They just reached a point and reached out to us. They didn’t know where else to look.”
On Sunday morning, Whatcom County Sheriff’s Department officers stopped by the farmworker housing where they were told of the labor protest going on.
“We were doing everything under the law and you know even the sheriff can’t be in the middle of any of this,” Franks said. “We tried to ask if they could accompany us, to be some kind of mediator between us and the boss.”
Deputies declined to assist, saying they aren’t allowed to do any kind of mediating, Franks said.
At laborer housing on Monday, workers gathered indoors to take notes and discuss next steps, before owner George Sandhu and Jeff Mclean and Oscar Trevino of WAFLA appeared in the late afternoon.
Sandhu could not be reached for comment for this story.
Talks in Spanish went back and forth between Sandhu and the workers, who call Mexico and Guatemala home. The two reps from WAFLA acted in a mediating role.
The farmworkers all have families back home who rely on income earned via the H2A contracts. They object to the brown-tinted water that comes out of the faucets on the living grounds. They filled a clear glass to show the poor quality of water they use for showering, cooking and drinking.
“Our role going in there is that we’re not necessarily representing a side in this matter,” said Steve Davis, WAFLA chief financial officer. “We were there to get the two sides together and to figure out how they could work together and successfully solve these issues.”
Ramon Torres, president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, aided in negotiations. Familias is Skagit County’s first farmworker union, organized in June 2017. Representatives of Washington State Labor and Industries and the Consulate Generals of Guatemala and Mexican also made visits to the central county farm between Old Guide and Aldrich roads, Franks said.
When asked by one of the WAFLA agents if they wanted to work, all of the workers in the meeting raised their hands. But they wanted clear terms before heading back to the fields to pick fruit.
Farmworkers asked that the seven suspended for not meeting production quotas be allowed to return to work, be paid back wages they say they are owed, and for the farm to provide proof of what they are getting paid, Franks said.
After about an hour of discussion, workers left the meeting after hearing what the farm owner had to say. But by Tuesday morning, after reaching a compromise, the workers had returned.
“Given that the grower agreed to hire everybody back with no reprisals, paid everybody what they were owed and met at least the minimal demands, [workers] were willing to go back to work,” Franks said.
Sandhu, he said, will also provide pay stub proof going forward, instead of depositing worker pay directly onto debit cards that don’t display specific
line items deducted or proof of hours worked.
“I think this is another case and another example of how the H2A program lends itself to abuse because of the power dynamics and all of the things inherently built into it that make it hard for workers to speak up,” Franks said.
Last year, protests were sparked at Sarbanand Farms of Sumas, after an H2A farmworker there fell ill and died. This year, the farm elected not to use the federal farmworker hiring program.
No other Whatcom farms obtain H2A farmworkers through WAFLA.
Franks said C2C will monitor what’s going on and what action state agencies (Labor and Industries, Health and Employment Security) will take. Via phone calls, emails and letters, pressure will be put on Gov. Jay Inslee’s office to investigate the H2A program, he said.