Washington Farmworkers call for coordinated statewide H-2A oversight, endorse HB 1398

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Photo by Edgar Franks

 

House Labor & Workplace Standards Committee

January 22, 2019

Work Session: Department of Commerce report on independent contractor employment; Public Hearing: HB 1361, HB 1398, HB 1399, HB 1400.

 

Corrected Translation from the Spanish by Karani Medios

Original Bill HB 1398

 

ramon
Ramon B. Torres, President, Familias Unidas por la Justicia

 

Ramon Torres was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco in Mexico where he grew up helping his father in his construction business. He finished high school and worked two years in a shoe factory as a machinist where he mad $140 (U.S. dollars) per week.

His father’s death was the catalyst that would compel him to move to the U.S. in an effort to make a better income to support his family. He worked the agricultural fields of the San Joaquin and Yakima Valley doing everything from pruning, picking fruits and vegetables, cutting flowers, and stacking bins for pistachios, migrating from job to job depending on the harvest.

He was able to make enough to help his mother start a storefront in her home to sustain herself. Meanwhile in the U.S. he married and gained a family. Their desire to stay together led to their migration to Burlington to work at Sakuma Brothers Farm in 2012 because they provided family housing for migrant workers at their labor camp.

Torres said that witnessing the exploitation and discrimination targeted towards his indigenous co-workers in 2012 made him think twice about returning in 2013, but he did, and on July 11, 2013 he helped found Familias Unidas por la Justicia, an independent democratic farm worker union. In 2016 the union and Sakuma Brothers Farm agreed to their first union contract.

Testimony Ramon Barba Torres, Familias Unidas por la Justicia

Start Time – 51:15

My name is Ramon Barba Torres. I am the President of the only farmworker union in Washington State, Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

We are endorsing HB 1398. We are in agreement that there should be local oversight of the H-2A program.

For many years, we have been concerned about the exponential growth of the H-2A program and how it has been displacing domestic farmworkers.

How it is being used in retaliation of farmworkers who choose to organize themselves to defend their rights.

As an independent farm labor union, we would like the opportunity to serve on the advisory committee that will develop the rules for this bill.

We want to ensure that there is a process that reports more precise numbers of how many domestic farmworkers are available.

It is hard to believe that from one year to the next there is such an extreme increase in the need for labor and that the H-2A application does not require any proof of how domestic farmworkers are being recruited.

As an independent farmworker union, in 2018 we were called to support more than six different farmworker strikes that were waged by farmworkers contracted through the H-2A program.

That is only in Washington State. Every one of these strikes addressed retaliation, some addressed how poorly the H-2A program was being monitored on a federal level.

We have found that the existing field visits that are pre-scheduled to monitor the program are not working.

We have witnessed and have come to know that this program is being used against domestic farmworkers.

Our primary role is to assure that domestic farmworkers have the priority and opportunity to work these jobs before another worker from abroad is contracted in their place. Thank you.

End Time – 55:10

 

 

Farm Workers on Strike Against Sakuma Farms
Rosalinda Guillen, Executive Director, Community to Community Development

Rosalinda Guillen is a widely recognized farm worker and rural justice leader. The oldest of eight, she was born in Texas and spent her first decade in Coahuila, Mexico. Her family emigrated to LaConner, Washington in 1960 and she began working as a farmworker in the fields in Skagit County at the age of ten. Ms. Guillen has worked within the labor movement with Caesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers of America and has represented farmworkers in ongoing dialogues of immigration issues, labor rights, trade agreements, and strengthening the food sovereignty movement. She works to build a broader base of support for rural communities and sustainable agriculture policies that ensure equity and healthy communities for farmworkers.

 

Testimony of Rosalinda Guillen, Community to Community Development

 Start Time – 57:40

Thank you, My name is Rosalinda Guillen and I am the Executive Director of Community to Community Development in Bellingham, Washington.

We are a farmworker led organization that works social justice issues including farmworker rights. Mainly because the leaders of our organization are farmworkers, are first, second and third generation farmworkers from across the state.

I would like to be on the record in support of this bill. Part of the language of this bill said that legislature declares it to be in the public interest to clarify the state’s role in the H-2A temporary agricultural program.

I want to thank this committee for hearing the bill. I am really grateful for this process that allows farmworkers like ourselves to come before you and give you our opinion and bring the facts of lived experiences both under this program but also as farmworkers in the State of Washington.

Washington State is an agricultural State. We recognize that. We are proud to be part of this industry. We are not recognized for our role in this industry. So I would like to discuss this bill with you and let you know that what was discussed in the bill, coordinating all of the state agencies in one place under this committee, that is going to be developed, is extremely important and it is the State’s responsibility as an agricultural State to create this kind of oversight of this program that has grown so much as you’ve heard from everybody on the panels.

We come to you, I come to you, and my organization and our members come to you with a lived experience of a farmworker dying in Washington State in Whatcom county in August of 2017 under this H-2A program where over 500 farmworkers brought in to work on a farm in Whatcom County.

We observed and were six weeks with the workers and our community as we watched all of these agencies both federal and state try to coordinate what happened in that company. We watched beforehand the lack of oversight and coordination and efficiency in ensuring that the farmworkers at Sarbanand Farms in Whatcom County were safe, were following the strict regulations that had been mentioned by the members of the WAFLA organization that just spoke, yet there was a lot of oversight, there was a lot of regulations, it is not monitored efficiently. This bill would provide that kind of monitoring, and in an urgent manner that in the end would not only save money, but save lives of farmworkers. I’m very concerned that more farmworkers like Honesto Silva Ibarra, a 28 year old father of two continue to be exposed to possible death under the H-2A program in Washington State. We support this bill. It’s a good first step in acknowledging the impact of the H-2A program on our state. Support of this bill doesn’t mean that we are supportive of the program. It means that we are desperate to protect farmworkers lives both domestic and foreign that are working in our State.

Yes, we agree with the creation of the office of H-2A compliance and farm labor. We believe that there is no worker shortage. We believe that farmworker leaders like Familias Unidas por la Justicia and our organization should be taking leadership and be part of the oversight of this program. Thank you.

End Time – 1:01:00

 

Testimony of Ramon Barba Torres, Familias Unidas por la Justicia

Corrected translation from the Spanish by Karani Medios 

Start Time – 1:01:22

 One of the ways that they are retaliating is that if farmworkers complain about a problem on the farm.

The company has the right to fire and deport them back to Mexico without providing any proof of why they are removing them.

In the case of Sarbanand Farms, there were upwards of 70 farmworkers who were simpley demanding to know information about their comrade who died.

Instead of receiving any information about his status, what the company did was to remove their suitcases and belongings and put them out onto the street.

They are farmworkers who are transported directly from Mexico, they are not familiar where there is a bus station, they do not know where there is an airport, they do not know where they can find help.

They experienced this retaliation after being fired for asking for information of a fellow worker whose life was in danger.

End Time – 1:02:59

 

Source: Washington State Television recording of hearing

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