A group of farmworkers will continue its litigation against a Washington berry producer despite the company’s withdrawal from the federal H-2A guest worker program.
Sakuma Bros. Farms of Burlington, Wash., has rescinded its application to the U.S. Labor Department to hire foreign workers through the H-2A program.
The company used the program last year amid a dispute with a group of farmworkers who wanted to collectively negotiate a labor contract.
The group, Familias Unidas Por La Justicia, filed a lawsuit accusing Sakuma Bros. of faking a labor shortage to replace them with foreign H-2A pickers.
Steve Sakuma, an owner of the farm company, said more than 900,000 pounds of berries went unharvested last year due to a dearth of workers.
“We recognize that it is a risk to go in this direction given that the H-2A program provided us a safety net for securing a labor force but we are hopeful that working with local community farm worker advocates we will be able to hire the work force we need,” he said in a press release.
Kathleen Barnard, attorney for the domestic workers, said the company’s decision to drop the H-2A program won’t directly influence the lawsuit.
The H-2A program has attracted a lot of attention in the dispute between Sakuma Bros. and the farmworker group, she said.
However, the main issue in the litigation is retaliation against farmworkers who tried to organize, she said.
The group wants a state judge to declare that Sakuma Bros. cannot refuse to provide housing for farmworkers’ families, she said.
The farm company must also be enjoined from refusing to rehire workers who went on a five-day strike last summer, Barnard said.
The judge recently issued a temporary restraining order, holding that such striking workers must be eligible for rehire.
Barnard said the group is hoping to turn that order into a permanent injunction and resolve the family housing question at a trial scheduled for June 18.
The recent temporary restraining order likely hurt Sakuma Bros.’ ability to claim a labor shortage and hire H-2A workers, she said.
The company was also probably frustrated by a disagreement with DOL over productivity requirements for H-2A guest workers, Barnard said.
The issue is related to “prevailing practices” on Washington farms and was still pending even as the berry harvest quickly approaches, she said.
“It was taking so long to get it resolved that it was becoming difficult for them,” Barnard said.
Capital Press was unable to reach a representative of Sakuma Bros. as of press time.
In the press release, the company said it has improved worker housing, supervisor training and food security.
Sakuma Bros. has also vowed to pay pickers at least $11.87 per hour — compared to Washington’s $9.32 minimum wage — but workers can earn even more based on how much fruit they harvest.
“Our family hopes the community appreciates the efforts we have made to respond to our critics,” Steve Sakuma said in the release.