OLYMPIA — The Seattle Democrat who introduced a bill that linked Washington farmers to slavery said Friday she was surprised by the strong negative reaction.
Sen. Rebecca Saldana said she was tying to draw attention to the worldwide problem of human trafficking.
“That language tried to capture a global phenomenon,” she said in an interview. “It is about Washington because that’s where we have jurisdiction, but it’s also broader.”
Senate Bill 5693 would have required farmers to report incidents of slavery, peonage, human trafficking and employment-law violations to large retailers.
The bill was backed by the United Farm Workers, but sharply criticized by farm groups as offensive.
The Democratic-controlled Labor and Commerce Committee endorsed Saldana’s legislation, but the bill wasn’t brought up for a vote by the full Senate before Wednesday’s deadline for non-spending measures to pass the chamber in which they were introduced.
UFW National Vice President Erik Nicholson said Friday the union will advocate for the bill next year.
Publicizing documented cases of mistreatment of farmworkers would enlighten consumers, he said.
He criticized farm groups, accusing them of overreacting to the bill and denying the risk that foreign workers can be pressed into debt by unscrupulous recruiters before and after they arrive in the U.S.
“Ignorance is not a defense,” Nicholson said.
Under the bill, retailers and food makers with annual sales of more than $200 million and doing business in Washington would have been required to post on their websites employment violations by their agricultural suppliers.
Retailers and manufacturers would have had to report actions they’ve taken to eradicate slavery, peonage and human trafficking; ensure compliance with employment laws; and ensure workers’ human rights are respected.
“Washington State Tree Fruit Association President Jon DeVaney said farmers felt attacked by the implication that they used forced labor.
“I do know that a lot of individual growers were very offended,” he said.
The bill could have led to unfairly portraying Washington farmers as more likely to mistreat workers than foreign growers, DeVaney said.
“We’re in a highly regulated environment, where violations can be procedural and technical, while in other countries there can be very little enforcement,” he said. “They could have really terrible labor practices and have nothing reported.”
Veteran farm lobbyists in Olympia condemned the bill in unusually strong terms.
Last year, Saldana proposed growers give four-business day notice before spraying chemicals, a rule farmers said would be impractical and implied they were careless. The Washington Farm Bureau recently accused Saldana of launching “a purposeful, relentless attack against the farmers of this state.”
A former union organizer of farmworkers in Oregon, Saldana wrote in a followup email that her urban district was “deeply involved and interested in access to healthy, wholesome food and participating in creating quality food-related jobs.”
“We can do better, and I believe most in the industry are doing better, and are interested in continuous improvements, ...” she wrote.
“Although local growers understood this language in the bill to be an accusation against them, it should be noted that some of the big retailers in our state have supply chains from throughout the country and all over the world,” Saldana wrote.
“I understand that many employers are doing things the right way, and the reporting requirement would allow them to showcase that. At the same time, it would help us identify those few bad actors and address the issues facing their workers,” she wrote said.