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A farmworker dies, workers strike at Sarbanand Farms

Interview by David Silva  |  Issue: September | October 2017

SUMAS, WA – Federal and State agencies began an investigation of Sarbanand Farms, after 70 H-2A farmworkers were fired for organizing a one-day work stoppage over horrendous working and living conditions. The final blow came when Ernesto Silva Ibarra was hospitalized. Then a group of workers marched to the Sarbanand office they were ordered to go back to work – they decided to take the risk of being fired and worse deported went on Strike.

David Silva, correspondent for the Tribuno del Pueblo interviewed Marú Mora Villalpando, Communications Coordinator for Community2Community (farmworker advocacy group) and Unión Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

TRIBUNO: What is the situation with Ernesto Silva Ibarra?

MARU: In July, he was brought here from California where they were working for Munger Farms under the H-2A program with a contract from May to June. When the visa expired in June the workers were sent to Sumas to work at Sarbanand Farms, a subsidiary of Munger Farms. He was one of 600 workers who came under the H-2A contract.

Last week Ernesto and another worker started feeling ill while at work. Here in Washington we have been experiencing hotter than normal weather. There is a huge forest fire near here from Canada. The workers have complained about headaches. The smoke from the fire worked like an insulator making it hotter and hard to breath.  A warning was issued to the area, for person with respiratory problems not to go outside. So these were some of the complaints to the company before Ernesto’s got ill!

He tried to go to the airport to go back to Mexico and asked the supervisor for a ride. The supervisor said “No, that is abandoning your work.” Regardless, Ernesto got himself a ride to the airport. But he could not buy a ticket because his work visa had expired.

Once he could not buy a plane ticket, Ernesto went back to work. Still feeling ill, he got a ride to a local clinic in Bellingham (WA). He was diagnosed with dehydration and transferred to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. His fellow workers were told Ernesto died on August 6.

When Ernesto went to the hospital the workers decided to do a work stoppage the next day (Aug 5). Not all 600, but 70 of them. When the 70 workers went back to work the next day, they were told they were fired and ordered to vacate the cabins. When the workers asked for their money, the company demanded they sign papers stating that they were being fired for insubordination. The workers refused.

TRIBUNO: I understand that Ernesto’s death is being investigated.

MARU: Rosalinda Guillen the director of Communty2Community began calling everywhere. She called trade unions, the governor’s office, community organizations – everyone she knew. This created enough public pressure that the state decided to investigate. We’re demanding not only an investigation of the working conditions, but also of Ernesto Silva Ibarra’s death. Isn’t it sad that someone has to die for this to happen?

TRIBUNO: Have the workers joined the Familias Unidas por Justicia?

MARU: Yes, FUJ is a different type of union. We explained what we’re about. Once they understood we are a different type of union, they agreed. We helped with setting up an encampment, which they named Campo Zapata! We also helped them make contact with social groups, social media and regular media.

On Tuesday, on August 8, we marched to the company with the lawyers and reporters to talk with management, but they refused. All we want from them is to return the money to the workers. They refused. But the next day, they did return the money. Since then we have heard from the state Department of Labor and Industries. They are trying to work out special visas for them to return without punishment.

The workers are still at the camp and are exposed to the elements. This is the worst thing that could happen to them. They are literally homeless! This is like “Legal Slavery.”

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