On June 12, farmworkers at King Fuji Ranch in Mattawa began a strike after reaching a tipping point of abuse. The Mattawa workers are here on H-2A visas, which are designed to bring agricultural workers from abroad when an employer expects a shortage of workers domestically. Most of the guest workers at King Fuji Ranch are men recruited from Mexico, subject to various restrictions during their temporary stay.
Working conditions enforced by threats
The H-2A workers in these apple orchards and grape vineyards faced untenable production quotas imposed by the company and enforced by supervisors using intimidation and threats. King Fuji Ranch consistently retaliated against farmworkers who have spoken out, using tactics including firing, blacklisting, and sending groups of workers back to Mexico.
In February of this year dozens of workers reported getting hypothermia after working in below freezing temperatures. In early May the company quarantined over 100 workers who were exposed to mumps, isolating them from each other and making it nearly impossible for them to get to town to seek medical attention. At the same time, farm management has taken no measures to ensure its housing meets safety and health standards; workers have concerns that other illnesses could spread.
Workers at King Fuji were told that if they “work harder” they would be taken off any blacklists. In other words, if they didn’t speak out and accepted to work under unsafe conditions with untenable quotas, they could keep their jobs. However, after at least three instances this year of groups demanding better working conditions being sent back to Mexico, this June new H2A workers experiencing the same intimidation tactics said “enough!”
Stiffed by the feds
The practices that led to the strike by workers at King Fuji are common throughout the agricultural sector. H-2A workers are restricted in many ways. The fact that they are tied to a single employer makes them vulnerable to abuses; and subject to coercion. Groups like Community to Community Development and Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ) have organized to demand oversight of the program as H2A workers’ reports of abuse get little response from state agencies. The program requirements are set by the federal government, which provides states with a level of funds drastically lower than the cost of managing the program.
Washington legislators step up
Help may be on the way, in the form of a law creating and funding and a new state office to monitor labor, housing, and health and safety requirements for farms using the H2A program. Rosalinda Guillen from Community to Community pointed out that It is long overdue that corporate farms like King Fuji Ranch end worker abuses and dangerous working conditions. “It’s time the agricultural industry in Washington changes its labor practices, ends the culture of retaliation and recognizes us as human beings that want to work in a food system free from exploitation and rooted in dignity and fairness,” said Ramon Torres, President of Familias Unidas por la Justicia.
Months and years of organizing for fair working conditions for people who’ve been brought here specifically to grow and harvest our food came to fruition when Representatives Debra Lekanoff (D-40th District) and Senator Jon McCoy (D-38th district) championed SB 5438, which was signed into law by Governor Inslee in May.
These workers are keeping their part of the bargain
Rep. Lekanoff, the first Native American woman to serve in Washington’s state legislature, speaking at a hearing said, “Washington state is the third largest user of H2A workers. It is also a fact that these workers boost our economy. In 2017 each worker provided a benefit of approximately $5000. That is a contribution of about $123 million to the economy. The feds are not showing up to help us, so we as the Washington state legislature will take control of this issue. Though this bill is not what we hoped for, it is where we are today. We will strive to do better, we will strive to work harder, we will strive to take care of those H2A workers who have come to rely upon us to welcome them into our America.”
For now, the people on temporary visas who work at King Fuji will have to rely on Familias Unidas for help — the new law will not go into effect until August and then more time will be needed to set up.