Originally published at High Country News
By Levi Pulkkinen
“Al menos que se estén muriendo, no falten.”
Unless you are dying, don’t miss work.
That was the order given to guest workers bringing in the blueberry harvest for Munger Bros., in Sumas, a farming town in the middle of Washington state’s berry belt at the Canadian border. Seventeen days into the harvest, on Aug. 2, Honesto Silva Ibarra, a 28-year-old father of three, fell ill.
Two days later, 70 workers held a one-day strike to protest working conditions. On Aug. 6, Ibarra died from complications of diabetes at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center.
The strike cost the workers their jobs. They were fired, evicted and returned to Mexico within weeks. Most feared, with reason, that they had been blacklisted by recruiters for the H-2A program, which had allowed the farmworkers to enter the country. The Sumas workers are now fighting their former employer in court, part of a surge of political action by workers long seen as powerless.
“H-2A workers are the most vulnerable workers in agriculture,” said Joe Morrison, a Columbia Legal Services attorney representing the Munger farmworkers. “Yet last year, 2017, you had workers from Sumas to Quincy to Kennewick all complaining of severe work conditions, mistreatment, lack of safety and health protections. That’s just unheard of.”
The H-2A visa program is supposed to be a way to staff farm jobs without displacing American workers. In theory, guest workers fill positions no American wants and earn more than they could at home, while growers get access to a pool of workers with legal status.
In practice, guest workers are easy targets for abuse: They cannot switch jobs, they won’t be invited back if they object to their employers’ demands, and they often arrive in debt and must pay their own way home if they don’t substantially fulfill their contract.
And while legal status may appear to provide H-2A workers with better protections than the undocumented workers who fill most agricultural jobs, the restrictions placed on guest workers dissuade them from advocating for themselves, said Briana Beltran, a fellow with Cornell Law School’s Farmworker Legal Assistance Clinic. Their geographic isolation at worker camps separates them from the wider community, and the transient nature of their work prevents them from organizing. “H-2A workers, they just come here, they do the work and they go,” Beltran said. “They have no sort of representation.”