If the Washington Senate Labor and Commerce Committee has its way, farmers and ranchers who supply large retailers doing business in the Evergreen State could find themselves certifying to those customers that they are not slavers.
The stated intent of the bill is to ensure large retailers are getting their products from producers who respect the human rights of their workers.
Introduced by Seattle Democrat Rebecca Saldana, Senate Bill 5693 mandates that retailers with worldwide sales of more than $200 million require farmers and ranchers to report any incidents of slavery, peonage and human trafficking. Furthermore, the law would require any violation of labor laws to be reported.
The law requires those incidents to be publicly disclosed and that the retailers outline steps taken to ensure compliance with labor laws. Suppliers who fail to provide information to retailers would be held in violation and subject to being sued by the state.
The bill was moved to the full Senate on a party line vote.
No one denies that human trafficking, particularly in the sex trade, is a real problem. While there’s probably little doubt that forced labor is a problem in the third world, there is no evidence that slavery or peonage is practiced on U.S. farms in general or Washington farms in particular.
Washington farm groups were rightly enraged by the suggestion.
Washington Potato and Onion Association lobbyist Jim Jesernig, said potato and onion growers were angry, and so was he.
“The supply chain that feeds you and your constituents are our farmers, ranchers and food processors. This accuses them of slavery and human trafficking.”
Many large retailers already inspect the farms and factories of their suppliers and require various private certifications that ensure compliance with labor standards. This would put the product of those examinations within the state’s jurisdiction.
Saldana said she wants to make Washington a leader in informing consumers about farm labor practices. We have no doubt that she and other supporters are sincere in their desire to fight human trafficking.
Is there also something else at work here?
Saldana is a former union organizer for PCUN — Oregon’s farmworker union — and Local 6 of the Service Employees International Union. The bill is endorsed by the United Farm Workers.
The original bill would have allowed any Washingtonian to sue farmers for not complying with the bill, even if the plaintiff had not suffered any injury or damage.
That provision was removed from the final bill, but it would have provided a sturdy cudgel for the union to wield against nonunion producers. What better way to indemnify yourself than welcoming unionization?
That’s cynical on our part, but no more cynical than suggesting to Washingtonians that their farmers are keeping slaves.