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Advocates Applaud State Senate Passage of Farmworker Rights Bill

Nonprofit contractors that hire farmworkers would have to comply with farm labor laws under a bill passed Tuesday by the state Senate. (Kakisky/Morguefile)
Nonprofit contractors that hire farmworkers would have to comply with farm labor laws under a bill passed Tuesday by the state Senate. (Kakisky/Morguefile)
February 20, 2020

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Farmworker advocacy groups say a bill on farmworkers' rights that just passed the state Senate is a good first step.

SB 6261 would get rid of a loophole that exempts nonprofit contractors from the Farm Labor Contractor Act, which sets minimum standards for the treatment of farmworkers.

Andrea Schmitt, a staff attorney for Columbia Legal Services, says all field workers deserve adequate pay, water, shade and bathrooms regardless of which company hires them.

"The largest farm labor contractor in Washington, the organization bringing the largest number of H2A workers by far, is a nonprofit," she states. "It's called WAFLA, formerly known as the Washington Farm Labor Association."

WAFLA opposes the bill, even though lawmakers cut a section that would have put in place strong penalties for retaliation against workers who speak out against abuses.

That provision was struck in the face of opposition from agricultural interests such as the Washington Growers League, the Washington State Farm Bureau and the Washington State Dairy Federation.

Advocates plan to bring the retaliation provisions back in a new bill next year.

Schmitt says laborers are afraid to complain for fear of being left off of the "preferred workers" list.

"With H2A temporary agricultural workers, that fear is especially strong, because the employer has total control over whether they come back to work the next year and, in many cases, whether they ever come back to work in the United States," she points out.

Washington State is home to an estimated 100,000 farm workers, 30,000 of whom use the H2A foreign worker visa.

The bill now will be considered in the state House of Representatives. This year's legislative session ends in mid-March.

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Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - WA