By JEFF JOHNSON
Honesto was a guest worker under an H-2A program working for Sarbanand Farms, run by a Delano, Calif., company owned by the Munger brothers. Honesto and other farm workers were picking blueberries on 12-hour shifts in 90 degree-plus weather, breathing smoke from the fires in British Columbia last summer. When Honesto informed the foreman that he was feeling sick he was told that if he didn’t keep working he’d be fired for abandoning work.
Honesto collapsed, was taken to a local clinic, and then to a hospital in Seattle were he later died. Sarbanand disavowed any culpability and instead claimed that Honesto died because of a pre-existing condition.
When you look at the facts of the case, to my way of thinking, someone from Sarbanand should have gone to jail. Their callous indifference to Honesto and other workers should have at least resulted in a withdrawal of their business license.
For a great exposé of the conditions that farm workers endure under the H-2A program take a look at David Bacon’s article “You Came Here to Suffer.”
As we marched through this bucolic and lush agricultural valley, I thought what we were seeing was a tribute to the blood, sweat, and tears of farmworkers whose labor has for decades made growers wealthy and put food on our tables.
I was thinking about Honesto and how he did not die in vain. We were marching to celebrate his life and to dedicate ourselves to raising wages and benefits for farm workers and for giving farm workers a strong voice over their health and safety and conditions in the fields.
When the march arrived outside Sarbanand Farms, a worker tribunal was held by the roadside. Ramon Torres, President of Familias Unidas; Lynne Dodson, Secretary Treasurer of the WSLC; Michele Stelevich, President of the Northwest Central Labor Council; and Betsy Pernato, head of Whatcom County Jobs with Justice served as judges for this tribunal.
As people gave compelling and compassionate testimony, one of the owners of Sarbanand and his lawyer sat in lawn chairs across the street. Talk about tone deaf. In a fair and just world they should have been asking for forgiveness for their callous indifference towards their workers.
As I rode back in the shuttle van driven by Ramon’s wife, Dianne, I sat next to their sleeping baby of two months, Arturo. As I looked into the innocence of his sweet face, I thought we are also marching today for Arturo and all the farm workers’ babies, so that they will not have to suffer the indignities of today when they are adults.
For 18 years in the 1980s and ’90s my wife, Becki, was a lawyer in the farmworker division of Columbia Legal Services. As we drove through this valley she pointed out different farms where she had been thrown off the property while trying to investigate farmworker housing and living conditions — and which farms she was able to get injunctions against. Becki wrote our state’s farm labor contractor law in 1985. It is why we have some farmworker protections on the books today around contracting. But she would be the first to admit that we need to do so much more to protect domestic and foreign guest workers from the exploitation that continues to go on every day in the fields in Washington state.
Farm workers shouldn’t have to go to work to suffer, but rather to earn family-supporting wages and to be treated with dignity.
Jeff Johnson is President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, the largest labor organization in the Evergreen State, representing the interests of more than 600 local unions and 450,000 rank-and-file union members.