January 22, 2020
Originally Posted  at Public News Service

OLYMPIA, Wash. — The landscape for farms and farmworkers has changed significantly in the past 70 years, so farm workers’ advocates want the Evergreen State to update the Washington Farm Labor Contractor Act.

This week, legislators held a hearing on Senate Bill 6261, including testimony from farmworkers. Antonio Ginatta, policy director at Columbia Legal Services, said it’s part of an effort to address reform to the H2A program, which allows guest farmworkers from other countries into the United States on temporary visas. He noted that about one-third of the agriculture workforce comes from outside the United States.

“There wasn’t an H2A visa program back in the ’50s [or] back in ’85, the last time this Farm Labor Contractor Act was actually amended,” he said. “So, what we’re trying to do is modernize it, is make it relevant to agricultural industry in Washington today.”

Farmworkers were at the State Capitol in Olympia this week, pushing for an update to the Washington Farm Labor Contractor Act. (Community to Community Development)

Farmworkers were at the State Capitol in Olympia this week, pushing for an update to the Washington Farm Labor Contractor Act. (Community to Community Development)

Ginatta said the bill would clarify liability for farm employers who use unlicensed contractors and address retaliation against workers who speak up about labor concerns. At Tuesday’s hearing, ag industry representatives said the retaliation provision in this bill is too expansive and would be onerous to employers.

For workers in the state through the H2A program, retaliation for speaking up about labor conditions is a concern. Edgar Franks, political director of the northwest Washington farmworkers’ union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, said H2A laborers have been denied the opportunity to work in the country again if they strike or seek help from organizations such as his.

“We’ve seen the issue of blacklisting now as a way that farm labor contractors and employers retaliate against workers that they think are ‘unruly,'” he said.

Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of the farmworker advocacy group Community to Community Development, said the bill also would address a loophole that exempts nonprofits from the Washington Farm Labor Contractor Act. She said she doesn’t believe farmworker recruiters should be able to hold nonprofit status.

“It’s a profit-making operation, and we believe that farm labor contractors in the state of Washington should not be nonprofits,” she said. “So, that’s one of the biggest things this bill is addressing.”

The text of SB 6261 is online at app.leg.wa.gov.