Columbia Legal Services
California-based Munger Bros. denies allegations that foreign workers were mistreated at its blueberry farm in Sumas, Wash,, and vows to fight a class-action lawsuit filed Jan. 25 in U.S. District Court in Seattle.
The suit claims that Mexican nationals last summer at Sarbanand Farms, owned by Munger, were underfed and overworked and that about 60 of them were illegally fired after staging a one-day strike in response to a worker’s death.
“The companies (Munger and Sarbanand) will vigorously fight the allegations in the complaint, which will be shown to be untrue and without merit,” according to a Munger statement.
The lawsuit stems from events last August at Sarbanand, including the death of farmworker Honesto Ibarra. He was taken away by ambulance Aug. 2 and died four days later at a Seattle hospital. Some workers refused to pick Aug. 4 and were fired the next day.
Labor activists alleged an ailing Ibarra was ordered back to work, though the company said it learned from a relative that Ibarra was diabetic and immediately called the ambulance.
The Washington Department of Labor and Industries will complete an investigation in early February into workplace conditions at the farm, department spokesman Tim Church said Friday. A separate probe into whether the farm followed employment laws is also underway, but the department does not have a deadline for finishing it, he said.
The lawsuit was filed by Columbia Legal Services and a Seattle law firm, Schroeter Goldmark & Bender. It names workers Barbano Rosas and Guadalupe Tapia as lead plaintiffs, but seeks unspecified monetary damages for about 600 H-2A workers recruited to pick last summer at Sarbanand. The suit also names CSI Visa Processing, a Mexico-based labor contractor, as a defendant. Efforts to contact CSI were unsuccessful.
Munger Bros., based in Delano, Calif., calls itself North America’s largest fresh blueberry producer, with more than 3,000 acres in Washington, Oregon, California, British Columbia and Mexico.
Columbia Legal Services attorney Joe Morrison said Friday that the lawsuit doesn’t depend on the circumstances of Ibarra’s death, but rather how workers were treated before and after his death.
“We’re hoping that people get put on notice that you may be able to use the program, but you have to play within the lines,” he said.
The lawsuit alleges that a farm manager told workers they had to pick unless they were on their “deathbed.”
The suit also claims the workers weren’t fed enough, with food running out at some meals. The suit further claims the company violated Washington labor law by firing the striking workers.
Munger, in its statement, said the company takes seriously its responsibility to see to the wellbeing of workers.
“The facts are that operations at the Sarbanand farm in Washington are exemplary. They include modern housing, dining and worker facilities for the H-2A workers. All employees are treated well and are paid well,” the company said.
The company said last summer that by refusing to pick, the workers were violating their H-2A contracts.
Farms are allowed to hire foreign seasonal workers if they can’t find enough domestic workers.
At a press conference Thursday in Seattle, Morrison leveled general criticism against the H-2A program.
“As a matter of public policy, you cannot import thousands and thousands of workers from foreign countries, exclude them from the protection of key labor laws, and expect everything to work out fine,” Morrison said.
Farms must provide housing, transportation and other benefits, such as workers compensation insurance, to H-2A workers. The U.S. Labor Department sets minimum wages for H-2A workers at a higher level than Washington’s minimum wage.
The American Farm Bureau Federation has called for replacing what it calls a “cumbersome” H-2A program with one that gives foreign workers more freedom to choose employers.