BRACEROS ORGANIZE AFTER ONE WORKER DIES
Picking blueberries on a Washington State farm. Risking deportation, Washington state farmworkers protest dangerous conditions in the fields
A farmworker’s death in the broiling fields of Washington state has prompted his fellow braceros to put their livelihoods in jeopardy by going on strike, joining a union, being discharged - and risking deportation.
Honesto Silva Ibarra died in Harborview hospital in Seattle on Sunday night, August 6. Silva, a married father of three, was a guest worker - in Spanish, a “contratado” - brought to the United States under the H2-A visa program, to work in the fields.
Miguel Angel Ramirez Salazar, another contratado, says Silva went to his supervisor at Sarbanand Farms last week, complaining that he was sick and couldn’t work. “They said if he didn’t keep working he’d be fired for ‘abandoning work.’ But after a while he couldn’t work at all.”
Silva’s death was the final shove that pushed the contratados into an action unprecedented in modern farm labor history. They organized and protested, and when they were fired for it, they joined Washington State’s new union for farmworkers, Familias Unidas por la Justicia.
According to Ramon Torres, president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, H2-A workers at Sarbanand Farms had been complaining for weeks about bad food, temperatures in the 90s with no shade, warm drinking water and dirty bathrooms in the fields.
When Silva collapsed and went to the hospital, a group went to the ranch management and asked for safer working conditions. When they were turned away, they organized a one-day strike on Friday, August 4. Familias Unidas por la Justicia, which just signed its first union contract with Sakuma Brothers Farms in nearby Burlington, held its first convention that Friday. When the H2-A workers came from Sarbanand Farms, they decided to join.
H2-A workers have fewer rights and protections. The visa they›re given when they come to work in the U.S. binds them to the employer who recruited them. If they lose that job, they lose the visa and become deportable. They have no legal standing to sue their employer in a U.S. court.
It was therefore remarkable that not only did the Sarbanand workers strike in protest over bad conditions, but that after they were fired they did not leave the country. The company told the fired workers they would not pay them immediately for their final four days of work, but instead would send a check to their address in Mexico -- a violation of H2-A regulations. The workers were given an hour to clear their belongings out of the company›s labor camp, leaving them standing outside with no money.
Sarbanand›s recruiter, CSI Visa Processing, took some to a local bus station, but didn›t buy them a ticket home. This violates another H2-A recruitment regulation, which requires recruiters to pay transportation to and from the jobsite in the United States
According to H2-A worker Ramirez, «We just want respect for our rights - firing us was very unjust. We also want to continue working until the end of our contract.» Ramirez has been working as a contratado for 15 years, picking tobacco in North Carolina and Kentucky, and for the last two years, blueberries in northwest Washington State. Last winter he signed a contract in the office of CSI Visa Processors in his hometown of Santiago Ixcuintla in the Mexican state of Nayarit. Under the terms of that contract he was guaranteed a minimum of five months of work, until October 25.
Ramirez was then taken to Nogales on the U.S.-Mexico border and given a visa. «But I saw that it was only good until June 30,» he recalls. «When I asked, they said they›d fix it. But they never did.»
Over 250 workers were recruited in the Nayarit office, he says, one of nine that CSI has in Mexico. They were brought to Delano, in California›s San Joaquin Valley, on May 7. There they began picking blueberries at Munger Farms, a large grower and partner in the giant Naturipe growers partnership. Then, on July 1, the day after the visa of Ramirez and many others expired, they were transported to the Sarbanand Farms ranch in Washington State, where they continued picking. Sarbanand is a subsidiary of Munger Farms, owned by the family of Baldev and Kable Munger.
CSI›s statement insists the workers «received an authorization by the government of the U.S. for this second contract, [and] none of them are out of legal status.» Yet after the turmoil started last week, one worker tried to buy an airline ticket back home to Mexico, and was refused because his visa had expired.
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