A Formal Complaint to the DOL to Revoke Sakuma application for H-2A Guestworkers

Farm Workers on Strike Against Sakuma Farms

Moderator’s Note: Rosalinda Guillen is the executive director of Community to Community Development and a seasoned labor organizer with a strong track record in the western United States. She was the lead organizer for the Château Ste. Michelle winery UFW campaign that resulted in a contract in 1995 that has been in effect through the present, and later worked for the United Farm Workers of America in Sacramento, California before transitioning into women centered grassroots social movement building in the early 2000s.

Since then, Guillen has been actively involved in the food justice movement, fighting across the food chain for the better treatment of farmworkers households and communities. On the Social Movement level, she has been involved with the World Social Forum since its beginnings in Porto Allegre, Brazil and has advanced a global struggle for farmworker women’s rights over their own bodies and for farmworker autonomy and workplace democracy based upon what she has learned over the years. Her most successful contributions towards alternative development have been the establishment and growth of several grassroots farmworker owned cooperatives including Las Margaritas Catering Cooperative, Cooperativa Jacal, and the more recent Ita Cuici (“white flower” in Mixteco) tortilla cooperative in an effort to create a domestic fair trade economy in Washington State.

Born to a family of organic intellectuals, a poet mother and an artist father, who happened to be migrant farmworkers who moved to and settled in the Skagit Valley in the 1960s, Guillen has continued her families struggle for justice and dignity in the region.

Most recently, Rosalinda Guillen was drawn into a supportive role for Familias Unidas por la Justicia’s negotiation committee, where she has witnessed first hand the stress and uncertainty of the striking farmworkers when it comes to their jobs at Sakuma Brothers Farms as Pickers.

A Formal Complaint:

BURLINGTON, WA – August 14, 2013 — Just yesterday, committee member Felimon Pineda, explained why the workers were feeling stressed and uncertain about their place at Sakuma Brothers Farms, Inc. Pineda, a seasoned Mixteco speaking farm worker, has worked in the United States since the 2000s, beginning his tenure in the United States south east picking tomatoes. He worked in Santa Maria, California in the mid-2000s picking strawberries for a Mixteco sharecropper, and transitioned to working locally in the Skagit County beginning in 2007 at Sakuma Brothers Farms and several other local growers.

Pineda explained that the problem they are experiencing has to do with the crop cycle and the organization of labor at Sakuma Brothers Farm. Most migrant farmworkers come for three distinct crops, Strawberries in June, Blueberries in July, and Blackberries in August.

Most of the wage issues that the workers have had over the years have been with delicate, highly perishable, and labor intensive strawberries and blueberries, which require a higher quality control than the blackberries. Blackberries are also paid higher, at the moment $4.25 per fresh market box, whereas blueberries at the moment are being paid at $3.50 per fresh market box.

He also explained that in order to earn well with piece rates, it is important for fast workers to pick independently, because their production is rounded off based upon how many workers there are per cart. The way that Sakuma Brothers Farm has organized the picking crews this year has placed four pickers per cart in the Blueberry harvest, and maintained the standard two pickers per cart for the blackberry harvest. Pineda explained that this has strayed from the standard they were used to in the blueberry harvest in past years and this has made it difficult for workers to earn enough to justify their migration to Washington, in particular because many of the farmworkers have been laid off for multiple reasons including the weather, ripeness of berries, quality of picking, and of course the strikes. The workers fear that Sakuma Brothers Farms is engaging in a constructive termination strategy, which is why they were so adamant about having a written document as proof that there would be no reprisals for their work stoppages.

The blackberry harvest started three weeks ago, in those three weeks, Sakuma Brothers Farms has deviated from past standards of recognizing seniority on behalf of workers who were employed since the beginning of the strawberry harvest. He says, “It is now the reverse, migrants who haven’t even moved into cabins yet, have started working in the blackberry harvest.” He explained that because of the housing that is dedicated to the 170 guestworkers that Sakuma Brothers Farms applied for to harvest Blackberries, there are migrant farmworker families who have just arrived from California who are living in overcrowded conditions inside their family’s cabins at the labor camps. The farmworkers of Familias Unidas por la Justicia are not against these other migrant workers nor the H-2A guestworkers, rather they are concerned that if there is little work and many workers who are currently laid off, what will happen to them?

This is precisely why on August 12, 2013, Rosalinda Guillen filed the following complaint to the Department of Labor asking for a full investigation and revocation of the Sakuma Brothers Farms application for 170 H-2A guest workers for the blackberry harvest.

Even with this complaint, The Washington Farm Labor Association (WAFLA) under the direction of Dan Fazio has been busy filing counter complaints, in a desparate attempt to help Sakuma Brothers Farms, Inc. come into compliance with the Department of Labor, which oversees the H-2A program for the U.S. federal government.

Fazio’s organization is a statewide consultant firm that specializes in helping corporate growers get around much of the federally mandated codes and regulations necessary to prevent fraudulent claims, abuse of power and exploitation when it comes to labor, immigration, and sexual harassment. Most recently, Fazio spoke in defense of growers lack of accountability for their careless hiring practices of supervisors who blatantly rape women in the workplace in an interview with KUOW, by blaming Mexican culture for sexual harassment in the workplace, he said, “I don’t want to sound politically incorrect but discrimination is just something that happens in the Mexican culture.”(KUOW Report)

A registered labor contractor, Dan Fazio has aggressively advanced the special interest needs of his industry on local, statewide and national levels. WAFLA is a staunch advocate and a strong lobby for the current Immigration Reform legislation, which due to its major concessions in contract labor via the introduction of new agricultural worker and W visas would greatly subsidize the labor contracting industry with federal tax dollars. WAFLA has also been supporting the executive management at Sakuma Brothers Farms, Inc. most likely since their initial application for H-2A guest workers, before this years historic work stoppages.

It is thus no surprise to see that the Sakuma Brothers Farms public relations strategy has been to claim that this labor dispute is more of a cultural misunderstanding, blaming indigenous culture and language, calling into question these farm workers intelligence in a recent Skagit Valley Herald Article, “The Symptom of a Larger Issue.” Furthermore, the Sakuma’s labor attorney, Adam S. Belzberg, has had a strong presence at WAFLA conferences on labor management.

This is indeed a symptom of larger issues, which we believe to be an attempt to sweep valid labor disputes under the rug in order to gain access to a brand new labor force that is less likely to hold their employer accountable. H-2A workers are vulnerable precisely because their contract says they cannot strike, nor continue to work, if they do not meet even higher production standards than the migrant workers have been disputing over the past month.

Familias Unidas por la Justicia is new farmworker leadership that is drawing the line and demanding farmworker rights, saying ¡Ya Basta! Will this leadership be able to sustain such a hard struggle against such odds against them? This is what is at stake.

Download .pdf version: A FORMAL COMPLAINT

August 12, 2013

U.S Dept. of Labor

Dear Ms. Garza,

I’m writing to you to ask that you investigate the certification of Sakuma Brothers Farms for the employment of 160 H-2A workers, number H-300-13163-279128. The certification was issued on 7/8/13. These workers will be employed, according to the certification, from
8/5/2013 to 10/31/2013. We believe the company is in violation of the regulations, and I ask you to suspend the certification.

As director of Community to Community, a farm worker advocacy organization in Bellingham, Washington, I was called in to assist workers in Camp 2 on July 11, 2013. Approximately 250 workers went on strike at the farm on two separate occasions, the last ending on July 26.

During those strikes, the company posted the certification for H-2A workers on the wall of the farm building where workers were negotiating over wages, working conditions and living conditions. Company representatives told them that they would not pay higher than $12 per hour, and $4 per box of blueberries, because this is what they were going to pay the H-2A workers. Workers were then forced to return to work for that price, or would have had to leave their jobs and lose their housing at the labor camp where they live.

The H-2A workers were scheduled to arrive on August 5th. That same morning a group of 22 young people, who are part of the families of the strikers, were terminated. They had previously filed claims, and were then paid, for lost wages at Sakuma Brothers Farms. The supervisor told them that their labor was no longer needed since the H-2A workers were scheduled to arrive that day.

Since that time the guestworkers have not arrived at the Sakuma Farms, with the owners own explanation that “they have too many workers available, and not enough work”.

The crew of 250 workers who had previously struck, and who belong to their self-organized group, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, were also sent back to the camp that same day. Some were told their picking wasn’t meeting quality standards. Others were told that their labor was no longer needed. The status and future of their jobs since then remains very uncertain.

The workers who struck, and who belong to Familias Unidas por la Justicia, are Mexican immigrants. Some live in the local area, and others come from California. Many have worked with their families for Sakuma Brothers Farms for many years, some for over 14 years. Their labor was never called into question before.

Since July 11th these families have endured private security guards watching their every move for 5 days, increased scrutiny of the quality of their picking, many days without work which they believe is another retaliatory action.

We ask you to investigate rapidly to ensure that the rights of the current workforce are not violated by being replaced by H–2A workers, or by other forms of retaliation for their collective action. We further ask you to cancel the company’s certification.

Thank you.

Rosalinda Guillen, Executive Director
Community to Community
Bellingham, WA

DOL _re_ h2a

DOL _re_ h2a page 2

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