Mount Vernon, WA – July 15, 2013 The Skagit PUD was packed to capacity yesterday for a Latino Civic Alliance sponsored community forum on Guest Workers in Skagit Valley.
In attendance were Washington State representatives Mike Sells and John McCoy, as well as representatives from the Department of Labor and Industries and Washington’s Employment Security Department and Northwest Justice Project.
About 70 farmworkers involved in a labor dispute with Sakuma Brothers Farms were present to share their grievances with legislators.
Some of the farmworkers grievances extend beyond Sakuma Brothers Farms to state policy on agricultural labor. Most of farmworkers migrate from California, which recognizes overtime as a labor right in agriculture, Washington state law exempts farm labor from overtime regulations. The farmworkers were also concerned about the plight of their children in the fields, which they brought up as a child care issue.
The meeting opened with presentations by representatives of the Employment Security Department and the Department of Labor and Industries who presented important information about the ongoing H-2A application filed by Sakuma Brothers Farm, which will potentially bring 170 guestworkers from northern Mexico to pick blueberries in Burlington, WA come August.
Local labor activist Hector Franco took the opportunity to voice a grievance regarding the transparency of the application process for US workers to gain employment under the pending H-2A contract at Sakuma Brothers Farms which requires that the firm prioritize domestic workers over foreign workers.
Franco and four other domestic farmworkers had begun an application at work source at the beginning of July, and had followed up with an on site application at Sakuma Brothers Farms on July 10, 2013. He described the process as frustrating and discouraging.
On July 10, myself and four other workers went to apply at Sakuma Brothers Farm, when we let the administrator know that we were there to apply for the H-2A contract, she told us to apply elsewhere on Benson Road. She didn’t give us an address, only directions, near camp 2. There were no signs, and we lucked out , I presented work order I received on June 28, the other workers had not gone to Work source so the clerk informed the other workers that they had to go to work source. Whereas Maggie Perez had informed us that we could go directly to Sakuma farms. After we told her who maggie perez is, she started working with us. She gave us a washington labor form with a number to call in Lacey washington and the US Department of Employer form ETA 790, actual application submitted to the labor department. She also asked us to sign a log and call Lacey, WA. Had to call another place to take another interview. If we pass the WFLA screening then they could inform us if we were eligible.
WFLA has placed themselves in the middle, this is in direct conflict with applicant requirements for Sakuma. Worksource and Sakuma farm did not coordinate this process in an open or transparent manner. Sakuma Farms and Worksource are not providing the same information to all applicants. Only serves to discourage local job applicants. So that Sakuma farms can claim a shortage of local workers and insure that their application will be approved.
Franco filed a written grievance to the Employment Security Department representative seeking more transparency in the hiring of domestic workers at Sakuma Brothers Farms in regards to the pending H-2A contract.
Later in the meeting Ramon Torres, a member of the Worker’s Rights Committee read their grievances and shared his testimony of why each grievance was important:
Ramon Torres: I would like to read our grievances, to Sakuma Brothers Farms – We entered to work on Monday at 8am, gave us a piece rate of .30 cents/lb. Federico Lopez complained about the low wage because he was worried of making the minimum weight, asked for a raise to .35 to .40 cents a pound. Because no one else said anything, the foreman told them that you should try it, because I did a test and it came out at .30 cents an hour. I worked for 8 hours, 150 lbs, $45. I was a middle ground picker, some made slightly more, some were able to make 70 pounds for 8 hours.
The next day we started in another field at 8am. He wanted to pay the same price, the people said they were not going to work for that wage, we went back to our camps, someone said that Federico Lopez told other workers to not come. Federico arrived late that day at 10am, the supervisor told him he had to go to the office, there he was evicted from his cabin, and at 2pm they were going to decide whether or not he was going to be fired.
Around 172 people gathered at 2pm to say that if he was fired then they had to fire everybody. There are three labor camps. The first day it was 172, second day the were over 200 people, we said that if he fired Federico we were going to leave, we made some proposals that day, and these are them:
1. If they fired Federico we were all going to leave. They told us they would give us a response by 2pm, the owner apologized to Federico because he identified the wrong guy, and told him he could keep his job. We made 15 demands after he was reinstated that we gave our boss.
2. The first was for a raise to .70 cents a pound for cannery berries by hand.
3. second was to stop using a scanner to determine our poundage. Everyone was complaining that the scanners were shorting them pounds. Many people complained because there was a discreptancy of up to 90 pounds a day, $27.00, that was why. We proposed to go back to paper cards.
4. No more intimidation of workers. There were a lot of supervisors who used to yell at people and the pickers were afraid of coming forward because of how they were treated. That is why we made that demand.
5. Another demand, is that we wanted to remove a supervisor because he yelled at a picker and his wife.
6. The other demand was to better the treatment of farmworkers, respect, clean living abodes, no yelling or threats at workers
7. not to force us to go to work when we’re sick, I can’t go to a doctor because I do not have health insurance.
8.They are asking me to bring proof I went to the doctor, but I don’t have health care. What we do is go to the pharmacy to find the medicine we need. But they want proof.
Nina Martinez: Would you say this is unique to Sakuma Brothers Farms or to Agriculture in general?
Ramon Torres: I have only worked for Sakuma Farms, I migrate from California. So I couldn’t say if it is or isn’t.
Angelica Villa: Yes, in Whatcom County it happens a lot.
(Omitted from discussion were 9. Do not disrespect workers. 10. No intimidation by supervisors.)
11. Another important demand. We come for california, 18 hours away, they don’t pay our gas mileage, no furnishing, dishes, etc. They give us lousy cabins.
12. the guestworkers from mexico are getting brand new cabins, beds, bedding, plates, etc. they pay their transportation and we don’t get any of those benefits.
13. We want to be paid overtime because we work longer hours.
14. Another demand is that we have questions regarding our paycheck. In the hours they put our production instead of hours. I go to get childcare and the hours I have per week are 3000 hours, and we can’t get childcare because it looks like we work too many hours. I don’t know why they do this. That was the last demand we had. We would like to see that there is childcare, most of the families have 3-7 kids, and no childcare, they are often left at home alone.
There was a considerable discussion that followed Ramon Torres Testimony. Several Skagit and Whatcom County farmworkers who worked at other farms claimed that the grievances presented by the farmworkers was widespread even in the clam industry, which is also harvested by piece rate. Torres followed up with a more specific example,
“We work for three weeks, then switch to blueberries, sometimes we work for 10 hours and on the check it shows we only work 7 hours. I get 7 hours, and my nephews show that they. All the kids under 14 they only work 8 hours but then send them home, 5 days for 8 hours, minors make 85% of the minimum wage, 7.80 per hour. If the minimum, he is getting $170.00 a week.”
The farmworkers also brought up that they were being denied breaks the entire duration of the strawberry season, The Department of Labor and Industries invited the workers to file claims and the Northwest Justice Project together with Columbia Legal Services will be meeting with workers later this week to go over their pay-stubs and claims.
The Legislators, who were there as observers, agreed that the worker concerns were legitimate, one was the chair of the house labor committee, he promised to hold a hearing about the childcare issue once the house was in session.