All 600 Mexican nationals who picked blueberries in 2017 for a Washington farm can be represented in a lawsuit alleging workers were mistreated, a federal judge ruled Dec. 20.
District Judge John Coughenour ruled that claims by two aggrieved workers raised issues that applied to all seasonal foreign workers at Sarbanand Farms in Whatcom County.
Columbia Legal Services attorney Joe Morrison said Dec. 21 he had been confident the judge would approve turning the two-plaintiff case into a class-action lawsuit.
If the judge had not, “it would have changed the case dramatically,” Morrison said. “Every worker would have had to file an individual lawsuit, which is completely unrealistic for this group of folks.”
The ruling potentially raises the financial stakes in a dispute that stems from the Aug. 6, 2017, death of a farmworker from Mexico. The 28-year-old man died of natural causes at a Seattle hospital, according to officials, and a state investigation cleared Sarbanand managers of any role in his death.
His hospitalization, however, led to approximately 60 other workers from Mexico staging a one-day walkout. The farm fired them the next day and ordered them to leave worker housing.
The lawsuit filed by Columbia Legal Services and a Seattle law firm on behalf of two of the fired workers, Barbaro Rosas and Gudalupe Tapia, does not blame farm managers for the worker’s death. The suit claims striking workers were wrongly fired and evicted, and all workers were browbeat into picking when sick and pressured to harvest unrealistic amounts of berries per hour.
Sarbanand is owned by Baldev and Kable Munger, owners of the large California berry company Munger Brothers. The suit names Sarbanand, Munger and two other defendants, Munger employee Nidia Perez and Mexican company CSI Visa Processing, which recruited H-2A workers from Mexico.
Each worker could represent multiple violations of the Washington Farm Labor Contractors Act. State law allows a fine of up to $1,000 for each violation.
Sarbanand says the H-2A workers were fired and sent home for insubordination and denies workers were threatened or ill-fed.
“It (the ruling) was disappointing and, of course, we’re pushing forward,” said Sarbanand general counsel Tom Pedreira, who is not litigating the suit. “The court’s order was not (a) finding that Sarbanand or any of the other defendants did anything wrong.”
The walkout, firings and worker’s death drew media, activist and government attention to the farm in Sumas near the Canadian farm. The Washington Department of Labor and Industries levied a record $149,800 fine for missed rest breaks and late meals at the farm. A judge later cut the fine in half. Other investigations failed to confirm complaints that workers had been exposed to pesticides or poorly fed.
Pedreira said Sarbanand brought in no H-2A workers this year. The farm cut its workforce in about half and used more machines to harvest the crop, he said.
In a court filing, Rojas declared that the highest-paying job he had in Mexico was fishing for $78 a week. Tapia declared the most he made in Mexico was $45 a week as a farmworker.
Both declared they had to spend money to supplement meals supplied by Sarbanand. The farm deducted $12.07 a day from paychecks for three meals.
The men said they were afraid that if they complained or took a sick day they would be sent back to Mexico.