Sumas farmworker dies; colleagues fired after protesting working conditions

Farmworkers in Sumas show their work visas to a photographer on Aug. 5, after Sarbanand Farms fired them after protesting their working conditions. (Photo by Community to Community Development via Facebook.)

Farmworkers in Sumas say they lost their jobs and homes after protesting the collapse of a fellow blueberry picker working in the heat and smoke. The man later died.

Honesto Silva Ibarra, 28, died Aug. 6, several days after collapsing at Sarbanand Farms in Sumas. He is survived by a wife and three children in Mexico. Other farmworkers say the blueberry farm fired them after a one-day strike that protested Silva Ibarra’s lack of medical treatment by his employer.

The company has been withholding more than 80 workers’ wages and threatening not to renew their H2A program visas, according to the protest organizers. The company also had been providing housing and food for the temporary guest workers. The firing has left the guest workers homeless.

Phone calls to Sarbanand Farms were not answered. According to documentation posted by protest organizers, the company cited “insubordination and refusal to work” as the reasons behind the firing.

Jesus Alberto Rodriguez Velasquez, 25, was one of the workers who lost their jobs. He joined the strike to protest the working conditions for himself and his colleagues.

“I do this for my family,” Rodriguez Velasquez said. “We come here to work and we trust what [the company] tells us that we’re gonna receive good treatment, but in reality it’s different.”

Rodriguez Velasquez’ translator was Edgar Franks, program coordinator at Community to Community Development.

The workers told KING 5  they were protesting the lack of food, cold water, and unsanitary working conditions.

Before Silva Ibarra died, he complained about headaches and requested medical care from Sarbanand Farms but did not receive any attention from his employer.

Silva Ibarra then sought help at a clinic in nearby Bellingham, but collapsed on Aug. 3. He was later transported to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where he died on Aug. 6.

The workers held a strike the day after Silva Ibarra collapsed, but said the company let them go when they returned Aug. 5.

Rodriguez Velasquez said that the workers only had an hour to gather their belongings before they were kicked out of the property and were told to “figure out how to get back to Mexico.”

“They don’t have anywhere to go,” said Community to Community Development spokesperson Maru Mora Villalpando. “They’re not mobile because they don’t have a visa. Even if they wanted to go anywhere right now, they can’t.”

Since being fired, the workers have lost their homes and have been camping in a sympathizer’s back yard. They are calling the space Zapata Encampment. They also have been relying on donations. So far, community members have donated food, water, clothes, portable toilets, tents and more.

The workers are cooperating with federal and state investigators, which are looking into the alleged conditions at Sarbanand Farms and into Silva Ibarra’s death.

Despite the current heat wave and smog from the wildfires in Canada, the workers are adamant that they will keep fighting until justice is served. Five have fallen ill due to the conditions outdoors in the camp.

But they hope that their actions help change conditions for other workers in similar situations.

“We’re prepared to be here for a long time to make sure the changes happen,” Rodriguez Velasquez said. “At least for me personally and speaking for some of the [other] workers, we would not want to return back to work for this company, because we have dignity.”