By David Bacon
July 5th, 2019
Originally Posted at The American Prospect
On Wednesday morning, June 12, 21 guest workers at the King Fuji Ranch in Mattawa, Washington, didn’t file into the company orchards as usual, to thin apples. Instead, they stood with arms folded outside their bunkhouses, on strike and demanding to talk with company managers.
According to one striker, Sergio Martinez, “we’re all working as fast as we can, but the company always wants more. When we can’t make the production they’re demanding, they threaten us, telling us that if we don’t produce they won’t let us come back to work next year. We want to speak with the company, so we’re not working until they talk with us.”
Martinez and his friends have joined a labor upsurge among both H-2A guest workers and Washington’s existing immigrant farm labor workforce, which has forced its state legislature to take action to protect both. New York state has just acted to increase the labor rights of farmworkers as well. Meanwhile, California, while it’s made important advances, has yet to enact similar legislation.
Martinez voiced a complaint common among H-2A guest workers. Pressure to work harder and faster is permitted by the U.S. Department of Labor—indeed, often written into the certifications that allow growers to import workers. The job order approved by the Labor Department for King Fuji Ranch, for instance, lists the first reason why a worker can be fired: “malingers or otherwise refuses without justified cause to perform as directed the work for which the worker was recruited and hired.” If a worker’s productivity doesn’t improve after “coaching,” then “the Worker may be terminated.”
“Coaching” at King Fuji, according to Martinez, means “they threaten to send us back to Mexico.” Another worker, who preferred not to give his name, explained that “they give you three tickets [warnings], and then you get fired. They put you on the blacklist so you can’t come back next year. Workers who were fired last year aren’t here this year.”