Sakuma Farms Workers Protest Exploitative Guest Worker Initiative

Carly Finkle | 09.04.2013

Low wages and poor working conditions at the Sakuma Brothers Farm in Washington State prompted over 200 seasonal farmworkers to go on a series of strikes earlier this summer, starting July 10th. They returned to work on July 26th after a series of negotiations, believing that the managers would continue to negotiate in good faith, but then resumed their strike when the company did not follow their agreements. The arrival of 170 H-2A guest workers contracted by the Sakuma Brothers Farms is clearly an attempt to undermine the Sakuma farmworkers’ bargaining power, displace local labor, and ultimately, depress wages. [i, ii] The Sakuma farmworkers’ demands reflect the need for drastic policy changes in labor and immigration law that extend far beyond the fields of Sakuma Brothers Farm.

The Senate has proposed plans to massively expand the national H-2A guest worker program in their Immigration Reform Bill that Congress will debate this month. If passed, the program would funnel underpaid and exploited workers into agricultural jobs at the expense of workers’ rights. [iii]

Seasonal farmworkers constitute a very marginalized workforce, in part due to their exemption from many basic labor protections. Further, over half of the two million farmworkers in the United States are undocumented immigrants, and the fear of deportation combined with the short length of seasonal employment often prevents migrant workers from reporting employer abuses and organizing collectively. [iv] Washington state law exempts all seasonal hand-harvest laborers who are paid on a piece-rate basis from minimum wage regulations. [v] Federal laws governing overtime pay, rights to collective bargaining, employer provision of healthcare, and many safety standards also exclude farmworkers. [vi, vii] The denial of these standard labor protections—afforded to almost all “unskilled” workers—further exploits an already vulnerable workforce.

Over half of the two million farmworkers in the United States are undocumented immigrants.

In most markets, labor shortages force employers to improve wages and working conditions to attract workers. However, a study by Farmworker Justice shows that the presence of government-subsidized guest workers places downward pressure on an industry’s wages and working conditions. [viii] The H-2A wage in Washington State currently guarantees guest workers and all employees doing comparable work a wage of $12 per hour. [ix] Under immigration reform, the guest worker wage for berry pickers would be set nationally at only $9.64, dramatically driving down wages for domestic farmworkers as well. [x] This will, of course, only aggravate the “labor shortage” problem.

The constant short-term entry of foreign employees also undermines a workforce’s ability to bargain collectively. [xi] Workers at Sakuma Farms fear that this is the management’s primary motivation for applying for H-2A visas. [xii] The Department of Labor temporarily suspended their approval of Sakuma Farms’ application for guest workers in July due to the ongoing strike, but lifted the suspension when the workers agreed to return to the fields during negotiations, mistakenly assuming it signified an end to the labor dispute. [xiii] Guest workers often obstruct labor organizing because their contracts are tied to a single employer. Many are unable to speak out against abuses for fear of losing their job and being immediately deported. [xiv]

To be effective, immigration policies must be accompanied by comprehensive labor reforms to improve the protections, wages, and conditions of farmworkers.

To be effective, immigration policies must be accompanied by comprehensive labor reforms to improve the protections, wages, and conditions of farmworkers. However, the current and proposed H-2A guest worker programs incentivize employers to keep wages and working conditions too low to attract local labor. This perceived labor shortage allows employers to apply for underpaid H-2A guest workers who are unable to organize and are unlikely to report abuses. [xv] Workers at Sakuma farms insist that there would be no labor shortage if berry pickers were offered increased wages and decent working and living conditions. [xvi]

The first step toward solving the perceived labor shortage in the agricultural industry should not be to outsource labor through the guest worker program, but to increase domestic demand by paying fair wages and treating workers with the respect they deserve. In industries where labor shortages continue to exist, international workers issued H-2A visas should not be tied to a single employer and workers must be granted more labor protections, including the right to organize. [xvii] The Sakuma farmworkers’ struggle for respect, living wages, and fair working conditions must be taken up at a national level through immigration and labor reforms in order to address the inequalities that remain deeply entrenched in the US agricultural labor market.

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i. Sheridan, Shanna. “Relations Sour Again Between Berry Farm and Workers.” 790 KGMI, August 20, 2013. http://kgmi.com/local/relations-sour-again-between-berry-farm-and-workers.
ii. Bacon, David. “Stand-off in the Strawberry Fields.” Al Jazeera America, August 19, 2013. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/8/19/stand-off-in-thestrawberryfields.html
iii. Holt-Gimenez, Eric, and Scrivener, Leah. “A Closer Look At Obama’s ‘Comprehensive Immigration Reform’.” Food First/ Institute for Food & Development Policy, April 10, 2013. http://www.foodfirst.org/en/Obamas+Immigration+Reform.
iv. Ibid.
v. “Wages for Agricultural Jobs.” Washington State Department of Labor & Industries. Accessed August 1, 2013.http://www.lni.wa.gov/WorkplaceRights/Agriculture/Wages/default.asp.
vi. “Farmworkers and Immigration: Priorities for Reform.” Farmworker Justice.
vii. “Health Care Reform Implications for Employers with Seasonal Employees.” USI Affinity, September 29, 2010.
viii. No Way to Treat a Guest: Why the H-2A Agricultural Visa Program Fails U.S. and Foreign Workers. Farmworker Justice. Accessed August 19, 2013.http://www.farmworkerjustice.org/sites/default/files/documents/7.2.a.6%20No%20Way%20To%20Treat%20A%20Guest%20H-2A%20Report.pdf.
ix. Turnbull, Lornet, and Boiko-Weyrauch, Anna. “Striking Farmworkers Afraid of Guest-Worker Program.” The Seattle Times, July 25, 2013.http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2021456869_migrantworkersxml.html.
x. Ibid.
xi “Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States.” Southern Poverty Law Center, February 20, 2013. http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/publications/close-to-slavery-guestworker-programs-in-the-united-states.
xii. Ibid.
xiii. “Community to Community Development.” Facebook, August 15, 2013.https://www.facebook.com/Community2Community.
xiv. Ibid.
xv.I bid.
xvi.Ibid.
xvii. “Immigration Policy Principles for Food Sovereignty.” US Food Sovereignty Alliance. Accessed August 13, 2013. http://usfoodsovereigntyalliance.org/immigration-policy-principles-for-food-sovereignty

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