Working Washington members step up for the migrant farmworkers of Sumas

Honesto Silva Ibarra was a 28-year-old father of three from Mexico who was working as a blueberry picker in Sumas, Washington — a small town in Whatcom County, just south of the Canadian border.

Honesto died on Sunday, August 6 at Harborview Medical Center. According to his coworkers, before he was hospitalized, his supervisor at Sarbanand Farms ignored his complaints about headaches, telling him to return to work in the fields rather than providing him with medical care.

Honesto was one of about 15,000 farmworkers in Washington state on a temporary work visa this year — the H-2A visa, which allows workers to stay in the U.S. for short periods of time while performing seasonal farm work.

Dozens of Honesto’s coworkers went on strike Friday, August 4, protesting his treatment as well as the alleged lack of healthy food, cold water, and fair working conditions on the farm. But when they returned to work on Saturday, they say they were immediately fired — and not only that, they were kicked out of their legally mandated farmworker housing. Left without homes or valid work visas to transfer elsewhere, more than 70 farmworkers have been sleeping in tents, camping in Lucy and Joaquin Suarez's backyard about a mile from the farm. (Read more here if you missed it.)

 A few of the donated tents set up for farmworkers in "Zapata Camp" — Lucy and Joaquin Suarez's backyard about a mile from Sarbanand Farms.

A few of the donated tents set up for farmworkers in "Zapata Camp" — Lucy and Joaquin Suarez's backyard about a mile from Sarbanand Farms.

The conditions the farmworkers have been subjected to are inexcusable, and it’s easy to feel hopeless when companies feel empowered to exploit their workers in this way. But it’s also been incredibly reassuring to see the many ways in which our communities have rallied to support the workers — from local organizations like Community to Community Development that helped coordinate with workers, to volunteers providing legal and medical care, giving rides and opening up their homes to the workers, and donating supplies.

Working Washington members stepped up, too. Together, our members raised more than $1300, and provided shoes, socks, hygiene products, and luggage for the camp. They also contributed over $800 worth of other supplies, including building materials for an outdoor shelter to shore up the camp for oncoming rain.

 Just a fraction of the supplies Working Washington members bought for the camp.

Just a fraction of the supplies Working Washington members bought for the camp.

 Part of the canopy at the encampment, which will be improved with the building supplies Working Washington members bought.

Part of the canopy at the encampment, which will be improved with the building supplies Working Washington members bought.

This week, some of the workers are leaving the camp to return to Mexico, after Sarbanand finally agreed to pay for their transportation following days of marches, rallies, and pressure from the workers and the community.

Other workers have been staying at the camp and working with lawyers from Columbia Legal Services to resolve visa issues. They say that because Sarbanand let their H-2A visas expire without renewing them in time, they may face legal challenges when they try to return to the U.S. to work in the future. The workers want Sarbanand to extend their visas and work to ensure that they’ll remain eligible for future H-2A employment.

 Some of the workers staying at Zapata Camp on the morning of Saturday, August 12.

Some of the workers staying at Zapata Camp on the morning of Saturday, August 12.

Additionally, Washington Labor and Industries is now investigating Sarbanand Farms to determine whether Honesto’s death was related to working conditions, and whether the farm has violated labor standards in its treatment of workers.

While the investigation may continue for several months, it’s clear that the bravery of workers fighting for their rights — and the support of a community who steps up when they’re needed — can go a long way in holding employers like Sarbanand accountable.

 The banner at the entrance of Zapata Camp.

The banner at the entrance of Zapata Camp.

Thank you for stepping up when you were needed, and for your valuable support for workers all over the state.