C2C files formal complaint with the DOL to revoke guest worker application
Community to Community
BURLINGTON, WA (August 15) — Committee member Filemon Piñeda, explained why the workers were feeling stressed and uncertain about their place at Sakuma Brothers Farms, Inc. Piñeda, a seasoned Mixteco-speaking farm worker, has worked in the United States since the 2000’s, beginning his tenure in the United States southeast picking tomatoes. He worked in Santa Maria, California in the mid-2000’s picking strawberries for a Mixteco sharecropper, and transitioned to working locally in the Skagit County beginning in 2007 at Sakuma Brothers Farms and several other local growers.
Piñeda says the problem they are experiencing has to do with the crop cycle and the organization of labor at Sakuma Brothers Farm. Most migrant farmworkers come for three distinct crops: strawberries in June, blueberries in July, and blackberries in August.
Most of the wage issues workers have had over the years have been with delicate, highly perishable, and labor intensive strawberries and blueberries, which require a higher quality control than the blackberries. Blackberries are also paid higher, currently $4.25 per fresh market box, whereas blueberries are being paid at $3.50 per fresh market box.
He continued that in order to earn well with piece rates, it is important for fast workers to pick independently, because their production is rounded off based upon how many workers there are per cart. The way Sakuma Brothers Farm has organized the picking crews this year has placed four pickers per cart in the Blueberry harvest, and maintained the standard two pickers per cart for the blackberry harvest. Piñeda explained that this has strayed from the standard they were used to in the blueberry harvest in past years making it difficult for workers to earn enough to justify their migration to Washington, in particular because many of the farmworkers have been laid off for multiple reasons including the weather, ripeness of berries, quality of picking, and of course the strikes. Workers fear Sakuma Brothers Farms is engaging in a constructive termination strategy, which is why they were so adamant about having a written document to prove there would be no reprisals for their work stoppages.
The blackberry harvest started in late July. Since then, Sakuma Brothers Farms has deviated from past standards of recognizing seniority on behalf of workers who were employed since the beginning of the strawberry harvest. He explained, “It is now the reverse. Migrants who haven’t even moved into cabins yet, have started working in the blackberry harvest.” Because of the housing dedicated to the 170 guestworkers Sakuma Brothers Farms applied for the harvest of blackberries, there are migrant farmworker families who have just arrived from California who are living in overcrowded conditions inside their family’s cabins at the labor camps. The farmworkers of Familias Unidas por la Justicia are not against these other migrant workers nor the H-2A guestworkers, rather they are concerned that if there is little work and many workers are currently laid off, what will happen to them?
This is precisely why on August 12, 2013, Rosalinda Guillen, Executive Director of Community to Community (C2C) filed the following complaint to the Department of Labor asking for a full investigation and revocation of the Sakuma Brothers Farms application for 170 H-2A guest workers for the blackberry harvest.
Even with this complaint, The Washington Farm Labor Association (WAFLA) under the direction of Dan Fazio has been busy filing counter complaints, in a desperate attempt to help Sakuma Brothers Farms, Inc. come into compliance with the Department of Labor, which oversees the H-2A program for the US federal government.
Fazio’s organization is a statewide consultant firm that specializes in helping corporate growers get around much of the federally mandated codes and regulations necessary to prevent fraudulent claims, abuse of power, and exploitation when it comes to labor, immigration, and sexual harassment. Most recently, Fazio spoke in defense of the growers’ lack of accountability and for their careless hiring practices of supervisors who blatantly rape women in the workplace. In an interview with KUOW, by blaming Mexican culture for sexual harassment in the workplace, he said, “I don’t want to sound politically incorrect but discrimination is just something that happens in the Mexican culture.”
A registered labor contractor, Dan Fazio, has aggressively advanced the special-interest needs of his industry on local, statewide and national levels. WAFLA is a staunch advocate and a strong lobby for the current Immigration Reform legislation that, due to its major concessions in contract labor via the introduction of new agricultural worker and W visas [three-year visas for foreign seasonal and service-economy workers], would greatly subsidize the labor contracting industry with federal tax dollars. WAFLA has also been supporting the executive management at Sakuma Brothers Farms, Inc. most likely since their initial application for H-2A guest workers and before this years historic work stoppages.
It is thus no surprise to see that the Sakuma Brothers Farms public relations strategy has been to claim that this labor dispute is more of a cultural misunderstanding—blaming indigenous culture and language, calling into question these farm workers’ intelligence—in a recent Skagit Valley Herald Article, “The symptom of a larger issue.” Furthermore, the Sakuma’s labor attorney, Adam S. Belzberg, has had a strong presence at WAFLA conferences on labor management.
This is indeed a symptom of larger issues, which we believe to be an attempt to sweep valid labor disputes under the rug in order to gain access to a brand new labor force that is less likely to hold their employer accountable. H-2A workers are vulnerable precisely because their contract says they cannot strike, nor continue to work, if they do not meet even higher production standards than the migrant workers have been disputing over the past month.
Familias Unidas por la Justicia is a new emerging farmworker leadership that is drawing the line and demanding farmworker rights, saying ¡Ya Basta! Will this leadership be able to sustain such a hard struggle against such odds against them? This is what is at stake.
Community to Community Development is women-led place based, grassroots organization working for a just society and healthy communities. Located in Bellingham, they can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (360) 738-0893.