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Court Slashes Fine for WA Farm Where Worker Died

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Farm workers' advocates protested Tuesday outside a court hearing about the fine for Sarbanand Farms in Sumas, Wash. (Carla Shafer)
Farm workers' advocates protested Tuesday outside a court hearing about the fine for Sarbanand Farms in Sumas, Wash. (Carla Shafer)
 By Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - WA - Producer, Contact
June 20, 2018

BELLINGHAM, Wash. – Farm-labor advocacy groups are furious after a District Court judge in Bellingham slashed the fine to $36,500 on Tuesday for a blueberry farm accused of unsafe working conditions, after a worker there collapsed and died last August.

The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries previously found Sarbanand Farms not liable for the death of Honesto Silva Ibarra, a 28-year-old father of two, but it found the company failed to offer enough rest and dinner breaks.

Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of the nonprofit Community2Community Development, said the farm had people working 12- to 14-hour days, despite thick smoke from a nearby wildfire. She charged that managers ignored Ibarra's request for medical help until it was too late.

"He did have diabetes, but his death was caused by overwork, by not enough food, but also extreme dehydration and overwork outside in the fields, during a time when that smoke was covering all of Whatcom County," said Guillen.

The state originally considered a fine of $145,000, but settled on $73,000. Then the district court cut it in half. However, state law allows the district court to charge an assessment, which could bring the final number up to almost $75,000. The company did not accept responsibility for Ibarra's death and argued the fine should be lowered because managers kept good records and cooperated with investigators.

Ibarra was hired in Mexico to come to Washington on an H2A visa held by the company, not the worker. Guillen said that means workers can't flee to another job if working conditions are unsafe.

"For us it's immoral, the fact that the life of a farm worker has been negotiated down to $35,000. And the reason they bring in these H2-A workers is because they are exploitable," she said. "It's like slavery. It's like the value of a worker is actually being calculated. It's disgusting."

She said she's convinced that farm work should be done by union workers with proper breaks, salaries and benefits, and said her group will continue to protest working conditions on farms in Whatcom County.

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