A Washington state agency must turn over records related to Sarbanand Farms’ recruitment and treatment of Mexican nationals at the Whatcom County blueberry farm, a federal judge ordered Monday.
The Employment Security Department declined to release the documents to Columbia Legal Services without a court order, citing a state law that prohibits making the records public. U.S. District Judge John Coughenour in Seattle ruled that the records were needed to evaluate whether Sarbanand mistreated workers and passed over domestic workers in favor of hiring foreign workers on H-2A visas.
Columbia Legal Services sued Sarbanand, owned by California brothers David and Kable Munger, several months after Sarbanand fired about 70 H-2A workers who staged a one-day strike last August. The Mexican nationals walked out after a worker was taken from the farm by ambulance. The worker later died in a Seattle hospital. Officials said he died of natural causes unrelated to work.
The lawsuit alleges the farm mistreated about 600 workers last year, including by serving inadequate meals. Sarbanand denies all allegations.
The farm came under intense scrutiny last summer by federal and state agencies, as well as labor and community activists critical of the H-2A program.
Farmworker union president Ramon Torres denounced Sarbanand at a rally in Whatcom County on Sunday, held one year after the striking H-2A workers were fired and evicted from farmworker housing.
Torres heads Familias Unidas por la Justicia, which represents workers at Sakuma Brothers, a berry farm in Skagit County. The union rose up following a federal lawsuit and consumer boycott.
Community to Community Development posted a video on Facebook of Torres speaking in Spanish at the rally.
“And now that we have a union, we will not stop until this company (Sarbanand) has a collective bargaining unit,” said Torres, according to a translator.
After the worker died last year, the Washington Department of Labor and Industries found no safety violations or evidence to support claims that workers were exposed to pesticides. However, Sarbanand was fined for missed rest breaks and late meals. A judge ordered L&I’s original fine to be cut in half to $74,825.
The Employment Security Department couldn’t substantiate claims that workers were underfed last summer, according to department emails released last month to the Capital Press.
Columbia Legal Services is seeking records related to the farm’s efforts to recruit domestic workers last year, who have priority in hiring over foreign workers. It also seeks records about any complaints against the farm by workers between 2015 and 2017.
Coughenour declined a request by Sarbanand to seal the records from public disclosure beyond providing them to Columbia Legal Services. Sarbanand argued that a protective order would prevent information collected by the state in confidence from being disseminated beyond what’s needed for the lawsuit.
Coughenour said he wouldn’t seal records that haven’t been released, but would consider keeping them under wraps if the two sides agreed to a protection order after reviewing the documents.