Farmworkers protest at Skagit County berry farm

BURLINGTON — More than 200 farm workers walked off berry fields on Thursday to demand better wages and working conditions at a Skagit County farm.

The farmworkers left the Sakuma Bros. Farms fields saying they will return once their demands are met, The Skagit Valley Herald reported.

“I’ve never seen a group this organized walk off,” said Edgar Franks, who works with Community to Community Development, a group that works on social justice issues. “I’ve never heard of a list of demands.”

While galvanizing around a worker’s firing, the workers are also unhappy with the Sakumas bringing temporary H-2A visa workers to help with the late August harvest. The farmworkers say the visa workers will be guaranteed a higher minimum wage, have better housing and have all their transportation costs covered to and from Mexico.

Owner Steve Sakuma says there has been a misunderstanding.

“I’m sure that not everyone understands it,” Sakuma said. “I’m sure there are clarity issues, I’m sure there are some hard feelings out there.”

Under federal law, H-2A workers must be provided transportation to and from where they are recruited along with housing and local transportation for personal matters. During an H-2A contract period, U.S. migrant workers like the group striking would have to be given similar compensation if they performed the same job as the foreign workers.

Additionally, the foreign workers can’t displace any U.S. workers.

Sakuma said his farm is bringing 160 workers in under H-2A status, but not until Aug. 5.

The group gave a list of demands and grievances to farm President Ryan Sakuma before walking together back to their encampment.

The demands included the rehiring of a migrant his co-workers say was fired for complaining about wages, an increase in pay from 30 cents per pound to 70 cents per pound, better working and housing conditions and for workers to not be intimidated.

The Sakuma Bros. farms are one of the more prominent businesses in Skagit County, growing strawberries and blueberries and employing dozens of farmworkers every year.

Sakuma added that the housing was up to state standards and was regularly inspected.

“It’s not the Hilton,” he said, adding that the workers don’t pay rent or utilities while they stay there.

Sakuma also said the pay was fair and higher than the standard rate.

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Information from: Skagit Valley Herald, http://www.skagitvalleyherald.com

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