Courtesy of Community to Community
A Western Washington blueberry farm Friday offered its version of events surrounding the death of a worker from Mexico and the firing of more than 70 other foreign workers who walked off the job in protest.
Sarbanand Farms’ chief administrative officer, Cliff Woolley, said the worker, Honesto Silva Ibarra, was immediately taken from the Whatcom County farm by ambulance to the nearest hospital when management learned Aug. 2 he was sick. Silva died four days later in a Seattle hospital.
Woolley said there was “no truth” to reports that Silva was ordered back to work. Woolley said ambulance and hospital records, not yet publicly available, will confirm the farm’s account.
“Over time, the facts I’ve told you will be verified,” he said in an interview with the Capital Press.
Silva was flown to Harborview Medical Center on Aug. 4 and died two days later of what King County officials have called natural causes.
The farm says it learned from Silva’s nephew, who also worked on the farm, that Silva was diabetic.
Silva’s death has led to an investigation by the state Department of Labor and Industries and claims by farmworker advocates that he was mistreated. Some 65 workers on H-2A visas walked off the job the day after Silva was taken away for treatment.
The workers were angry that Silva hadn’t gotten treatment sooner, said Edgar Franks, an organizer with Community to Community, a farmworker advocacy group.
“They were upset it had to reach that level,” he said. “We want to make sure the truth gets out there.”
The dismissed workers, now numbering more than 70, were camping Friday afternoon on a supporter’s lawn near Sumas and about a mile from the 600-acre farm, which is owned by a California farm family.
Woolley said the company will pay for the workers to go home. Franks said the workers are conferring with lawyers and concerned about their ability to find work again in the U.S.
“They feel that by speaking out for Honesto and calling attention to the situation, they’re going to be blacklisted.” he said.
Labor and Industries spokesman Tim Church said Friday that the agency has met with farm managers and started to interview workers.
The agency will investigate whether workplace conditions contributed to Silva’s death. The investigation could take up to six months, Church said.
Also, the department will conduct a separate investigation into whether the farm was complying with employment standards related to such matters as meals, rest breaks and pay statements, Church said.
He said the agency received information from several sources, prompting the investigation unrelated to Silva’s death.
“We follow Facebook, and there were posts on Facebook,” Church said. “We want to get to the bottom of it.”
Woolley said he was confident state investigators will find working conditions at the farm are good.
“I don’t feel there is real merit to those complaints, and if there were we would look into it,” he said.
According to Sarbanand Farms, Silva, who was reportedly 28 years old, was brought into the office around lunchtime Aug. 2. Farm management learned from the nephew, who is about the same age as his uncle, that Silva was diabetic. A farm manager immediately called 911, according to Sarbanand.
Woolley said Silva had worked 3 1/2 hours that morning. He said the company pulls workers in from the field if temperatures are judged too hot, though the company has no definite cut-off temperature. The high temperature that day at the farm was 90 degrees, according to the company.
When workers left their jobs the next day and refused to come back, the company had no choice but to terminate their employment, Woolley said. “If they refuse to work, they’re violating their contract,” he said.
The next day, 12 workers left the farm, though four came back, Woolley said.
The blueberry harvest officially began July 10 and will continue into the fall. More than 500 workers were harvesting blueberries Friday, Woolley said. “It’s pretty much business as usual.”