Farm workers get a big payout, but state labor protections still failing

Sakuma Bros. Farms entrance. (Photo by Ashley Stewart)

It’s berry season again and one of the state’s largest growers is making big concessions to laborers in the hopes of bouncing back from a tumultuous year.

But worker advocates say there are still major flaws in Washington’s farm labor economy.

Hundreds of berry pickers walked off the fields at Sakuma Bros. Farms last season with complaints about wages, working conditions and the farm’s participation in the federal guest worker programs. The Burlington, WA company, which supplies berries for Haagen Dazs, Yoplait, Driscoll’s and Charlie’s Produce, became a target for consumer boycotts as well.

Protests finally culminated in a federal lawsuit filed late last year.

The owners of Sakuma Bros., a generations-old family business started by Japanese immigrants on Bainbridge Island, have since agreed to pay the largest farm worker and wage settlement in state history and ended participation in the program that temporarily brings people from other countries for agricultural work.

Farm worker advocates say it’s just one victory in a state labor system that often fails those who rely on it.

Workers said Sakuma failed to honor wage agreements or to pay them for all hours workers, and didn’t provide rest breaks or adequate paperwork to prove they’d been properly compensated.

Steve Sakuma, who owns the family-run farm with his son and others, told me in an interview last year that the claims weren’t true. Still, he and the farm’s other owners agreed earlier this month to settle the dispute outside of court.

A federal judge still has to approve the $850,000 settlement — a hearing to do so is scheduled for Thursday. Assuming it’s upheld, about 1,200 workers will split $500,000 and the remainder will pay lawyers’ fees.

Under the settlement, the farm will also be required to make changes to its labor practices, eliminating unpaid work, allowing rest breaks and providing adequate information about wages and hours to employees.

A display at the Whole Foods in South Lake Union advertises berries sourced from Sakuma Bros. Farms. The Skagit County farm will pay out a $850,000 settlement to berry pickers it abused last season. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
A display at the Whole Foods in South Lake Union advertises berries sourced from Sakuma Bros. Farms. The Skagit County farm will pay out a $850,000 settlement to berry pickers it abused last season. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Steve Sakuma and his son Ryan declined to comment on the decision to settle. A spokesperson for the farm said “between prepping for harvest, hiring and more, they simply don’t have the time.”

It’s just one win against in a fight against labor abuses that happen all over the state, says Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community to Community. The Bellingham-based group helped Sakuma workers organize last season.

Workers at many Washington farms have similar complaints about wages, hours and working conditions, but don’t always have the same voice, she said.

“Workers are afraid to use the laws the protect them,” Guillen said.

The state’s enforcement of labor laws are complaint-based — if workers don’t complain, issues are often not addressed. That’s tough for farm workers who worry they will lose their jobs if they speak up, she said. Undocumented laborers’ fear of deportation makes them especially vulnerable.

“One of the biggest problems for farm workers’ rights is the culture of retaliation,” said Andrea Schmitt, a lawyer with Columbia Legal Services who worked on the Sakuma case, and who also consults with the state about farm labor issues.

Sakuma was a rare case, she said, where judges ruled more than once to protect workers against retaliation.

In September, after months of labor unrest at the farm, a Skagit County judge issued a restraining order, forcing farm owners to remove security guards posted at farm labor camps.

Then again last month, a Skagit County judge issued another restraining order, compelling farm owners not to interfere in or retaliate against the organization of farm workers and notify those involved in last year’s protest that they were still eligible for work this season.

Schmitt said it’s uncommon for judges to intervene like this. Sakuma Bros. Farm is one of only two in the state with workers’ unions.

In most cases, she said, unorganized farm workers wait until the growing season is over to file complaints — when there’s less risk for retaliation. By that time, it’s often too late.

Postings on workers' sheds at Sakuma Bros. Farms explain labor rights and evacuation plans. (Photo by Ashley Stewart)
Postings on workers’ sheds at Sakuma Bros. Farms explain labor rights and evacuation plans. (Photo by Ashley Stewart)

But these workers were different. Berry pickers at the Burlington farm often complained about conditions, but with little traction until the farm took part in the federal guest worker program for the first time.

The H-2A federal guest worker program allows agricultural companies to bring in workers from other countries to fill temporary labor shortages. Sakuma Bros. Farms used the program to bring in more than 150 Mexican guest workers for the harvest last summer.

This became a catalyst for unionization, Guillen said. Farm workers and labor advocates disputed the labor shortage and said if the farm paid more and improved conditions, they’d be able to draw enough workers from the existing labor force. With their jobs at risk, workers came together.

Now Sakuma has backed out of using the guest worker program for the upcoming season.

“Even though we have been in business for nearly 80 years, we listened to our critics and we recognized that we could do better,” Sakuma said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the berries, apples and other crops will keep flowing from Washington farms into grocery stores around the country. In the busiest summer months, as many as 150,000 workers are employed in our state’s agricultural sector. Most of them are seasonal workers, and with the culture of retaliation described by advocates, that means thousands of laborers without much leverage to fight against unfair conditions.

Community to Community is keeping the pressure on Sakuma Bros., organizing a march for a union contract in early July, and continuing to promote a boycott of their products.

But for now, there are no other farm worker efforts to organize in the state, as far as Guillen knows.

“You never know until they call and say ‘we’re tired of being mistreated,’” she said.

Update 6/28/14: A Skagit County judge ruled Thursday for a third time ordering Sakuma Bros. Farms to stop retaliating against farm workers involved in the protests last season. Under the ruling, the owners must allow Families Unidas por la Justica members to return to work and live in labor camps at the Burlington farm.

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