On August 6, 2017, Honesto Silva Ibarra, a farmworker in Sumas, died after exposure to brutal working conditions—inadequate food and water, as well as high temperatures and dangerous levels of air pollution from forest fires.
The unnecessary death of this farmworker brought home to Whatcom County the reality of guest worker programs. Silva Ibarra was one of more than 500 workers brought to work on Sarbanand Farms in Sumas on an H-2A visa as a guest worker. Only one other farm in Whatcom County currently hires H-2A workers.
In 2017, the Department of Labor certified 21,990 agricultural guest workers in Washington, one of the top four states employing H-2A guest workers in the country. The Washington Farm Labor Association is the top recruiter of agricultural guest workers in the state.
There are several categories of guest workers. H-2A visas apply to agricultural guest workers. The structure of H-2A programs is an invitation for worker exploitation. Under the program, workers are typically recruited in their own country by labor contractors who offer them jobs and arrange transportation.
When workers are recruited they often pay many hidden fees to the labor contractors, and they are brought to the United States to work on a temporary basis for a particular employer.
Sarbanand Farms guest workers were bussed from Mexico and were unaware of their destination or where they were when they arrived. Workers at Sarbanand Farms are given housing, but pay $12 per day for meals.
Farmers who apply to the Department of Labor for guest workers must show that there are not enough local workers to fill positions.
Sarbanand Farms advertised for workers at the Mount Vernon Work Source. Workers could apply online, at Work Source offices or at the farm in Sumas.
Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community to Community, a local nonprofit that supports farmworkers and immigrant rights, pointed out, however, that farmworkers typically find work by applying at known farms that employ workers or through informal work networks, not by on-line applications.
So why do farmers hire guest workers?
The answer lies in complete control of the labor force. Guest workers are neither permitted to form a union nor to strike. During their stay in the United States, they must remain continually employed under the contract they signed with the labor contractor. The employer holds the worker’s visa, making it illegal for the worker to leave the worksite.
Article written by Betsy Pernotto and originally posted in Cascadia Weekly