Triqui mother and child at Sakuma Bros Farm Labor Camp 2. Photo by Star Murray.
Burlington, WA – July 16, 2013 – It took John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Dorothea Lange’s haunting depictions of destitute pea picker’s, filthy migrant labor camps, and childhood interrupted by sickness and early entry into the labor force to get the public to care about migrant farmworkers in America. What will it take in the present?
On July 11, 2013 migrant berry picker’s from California walked out of the fields they harvest in Burlington and over a six day work stoppage, were able to negotiate for the reinstatement of their coworker, the removal of their supervisor, better wages, mandatory breaks, and the transfer of labor camp youth workers (16-18 years old) from picking positions to light duty farm labor. Through the formation of an 11 member Worker Rights Committee to negotiate their grievances, these humble picker’s have modeled transparent, tri-lingual, shop floor democracy.
The migrants who work at Sakuma Brothers Farms, a 6 million dollar vertically integrated agricultural corporation, live in housing provided by the firm. There are three labor camps on premises, in an interview with Skagit Valley Herald journalist Daniel DeMay, President and CEO Steve Sakuma commented, “It’s not the Hilton,” as he argued that the tenants did not pay rent or utilities for their cabins and that they were up to Washington State standards.
Farmworker housing has been a sore point for growers and farmworkers alike. Over the last century, grower’s have complained that it is unfair that they have to provide housing for their temporary labor force and migrant farmworkers have complained that the “free” housing provides the growers with leverage and control over their private lives. This industry wide conflict is at the root of the farmworker labor dispute.
Not much has changed since 1967 when the President’s National Advisory Commission on Rural Poverty reported, “Migrants live in dilapidated, drafty, ramshackled houses that are cold and wet in the winter, and leaky, steaming, and excessively hot in the summer”(99). The commission further found, “Insufficient ventilation, poor or no mattresses, unsanitary privies and bathing devices, and unsanitary storage and disposal of garbage and refuse are too often the prevailing conditions”(Ibid). Sakuma Brothers Farm operates three on site migrant labor camps. The first is located adjacent to the company’s processing plant, the second is located a few miles into the berry fields.
At labor camp 2, where local samaritan José Ortiz who runs a free lunch program for the migrant youth via the Tri-Parish Food Bank, the conditions have improved little in the time he has been there. He mentioned that the common bathrooms near the baskeball court and picnic area where he serves food until very recently had a plumbing problem where raw sewage would overflow and the migrant children would play in it unaware of the danger to their health.
During a meeting with a congressional staffer for representative Susan Del Bene in Mount Vernon on July 17, 2013, one seven year old migrant child showed the staffer the rash she had received from the bed bugs that had infested the mattresses her family was provided by Sakuma Brothers Farm.
Farmworkers complained that their cabins tin roof leaks when it rains, and that it is very loud, they also said that in the summer heat the cabin can be unbearably hot and that the screen in the door provides very little ventilation. Some farmworkers who lived at the camp in the winter also shared that it was extremely cold because the plywood walls had no insulation.
The third labor camp recently received renovations in anticipation of receiving 170 H-2A guestworkers from Guanajuato, Mexico recruited by labor contractors. No migrant farmworkers were allowed to live in that labor camp, in fact family members of many of the California migrant farmworkers were turned away by Sakuma Brothers Farms when they tried to reserve a cabin because Camp 3 was reserved for H-2A guestworkers.
This differential housing double standard at the expense of domestic migrant farmworkers is a driving factor in the farmworker’s decision to stop work. The migrant farmworkers witnessed camp 3’s renovations, and saw Sakuma Brothers Farm equip the tenaments their family members had been denied with new appliances, new mattresses, bedding, and cookware along with modifications to the structure itself. To them this was a slap in the face, reinforcing their precarity, a blow against their dignity.
This is why the farmworker rights committee is still in negotiations with the Sakuma Brothers Farm executives, and it is also why this issue is so much more than a labor conflict. We are talking about human rights and human dignity.
For more on Sakuma Brothers Farms Labor Camps see: http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2003821114_migrantcamps04m.html