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WA Farmworker's Death Motivates March, Protest

Farmworkers on Sarbanand Farms say they discovered their work visas expired a month ago. (Community to Community Development)
Farmworkers on Sarbanand Farms say they discovered their work visas expired a month ago. (Community to Community Development)
August 9, 2017

SUMAS, Wash. - Farmworkers and community members are demanding accountability from Sarbanand Farms in Whatcom County, after a worker died there over the weekend.

Workers say Honesto Silva Ibarra complained to his employer about feeling ill before he collapsed in the fields last week. Ibarra took himself to a hospital in Seattle, where he fell into a coma and died on Sunday.

About 100 workers drawing attention to what they say are unsafe work conditions at Sarbanand Farms were fired over the weekend. All are here on H2A or guest-worker visas.

Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community to Community Development, said Canadian wildfires are affecting the health of many who work in agriculture.

"There's just a lot of physical and health issues with the workers, both inside and out, because of the stress and also the overwork; poor nutrition from the food that they're being fed, the hard work in these hard conditions right now," she said. "The air quality is so bad with the smoke from Canada. It's been building up for several weeks."

The fired workers, who are camping about a mile from Sarbarand Farms, marched to the management office on Tuesday. The Washington State Department of Labor said it is looking into the incident, but Guillen said the agency has yet to reach out to any of the farmworkers.

The workers also discovered that their work visas expired a month ago. Under the guest-worker program, employers are responsible for renewing visas. Guillen said it is peak blueberry-picking season, meaning there are long hours in the fields right now.

"It's been pretty exploitative and abusive, and those of us that live in Whatcom County are just outraged and are really upset about the way that these farmworkers at Sarbanand Farms are being treated," she said. "And the fact that we had a farmworker die on our watch is sitting really heavy on us."

Guillen said she thinks the governor's office should investigate the state's guest-worker program. Washington state had more than 13,500 jobs approved by the H2A farm labor program in 2016, fourth-highest in the nation.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA