In 2001 Rosario Ventura came to the United States from Mexico and went to work in Washington State, picking blueberries for Sakuma Farms. “I was expecting a different type of work here,” she recalls, “but this is all there is. I thought I would save up something here and go back, but I haven’t been able to do it. It is too difficult.”
The first job she had was pruning blueberry bushes. “It was really hard. After cutting the branches, they’d spring back and hit me in the face or all over. It really hurt.” She stuck it out though, working summers in Washington, and in the winter trying to find work further south in California, near Fresno.
Two years after she arrived from Oaxaca, she met Isidro Silva in the Sakuma fields. Although they belong to two different indigenous ethnic groups – she speaks Triqui and he speaks Mixteco – they got married. For the next ten years they made the trip back and forth each year with their children.
“You don’t get enough work, and what little you earn is quickly used up,” Ventura explains. “My children are growing. They need clothes, all of that. We have to pay the rent, bills and everything we eat. We don’t ever have enough money, because it runs out like water.”
Ventura’s job doesn’t pay much – at a piece-rate wage, it often averages just below state minimum wage, she says. It provides work for only half the year, leaving her family to migrate hundreds of miles to look for employment to fill out the other months. But the Sakuma job has been constant. In the insecure world of farm labor, it has allowed her family to survive.
That may not be true much longer, however.
This year Sakuma Farms applied for H-2A work visas for 438 workers it intends to bring from Mexico to work during the harvest, from June 18 to October 15. Afterward, they would have to go back to Mexico. Sakuma, one of the largest berry growers in Washington state, hires about 500 workers each picking season. If it recruits 438 of them in Mexico, there will not be enough work for those like Ventura, who have been laboring in its fields every year.
Sakuma Brothers Farms is a family business with annual sales of $6.1 million. During World War II the Sakumas were interned because of their Japanese ancestry, and would have lost their land, as many Japanese farmers did, had not another local rancher held it in trust for them until the war ended. Today their business includes a retail outlet, a freezer and processing plant, and a chain of nurseries in California growing rootstock for strawberry plants. They supply berries to the Driscoll Foods processing giant, and to Haagen-Dazs, the upscale ice-cream brand of the Nestle, conglomerate.
The possibility that Sakuma Farms may replace Ventura and her coworkers with H-2A guest workers has enormous implications for the 1.4 million farm workers in the United States. Using recruited contract labor to replace workers already living here, whether they are immigrants or native-born, has a long, sordid history. It goes all the way back to the hated bracero program of the 1940s and ’50s, which activists like Cesar Chavez and Ernesto Galarza successfully convinced Congress to abolish in 1964.
But guest worker programs never went away entirely. The H-2A program, established in 1986, has been growing every year since then. H-2A-type programs would be greatly expanded in immigration reform bills now in Congress, including those supported by both Democrats and Republicans. And even though those bills haven’t passed, the number of guest workers is rising rapidly anyway.
What is happening to Rosario Ventura, therefore, is a window into a possible future for farm workers. For workers already here, that future includes lost jobs. For growers, the same future holds government-administered programs giving them a source of temporary workers at close to minimum wage, who go back to Mexico when the work is done.
Over the past month, therefore, Ventura and hundreds of her coworkers signed letters stating that they want to work this coming season, and giving their employee identification numbers as proof that they are the company’s longtime workforce. On April 9 a group of them handed copies of the letters to the Seattle office of the US Department of Labor and to the Washington State employment agency. The following Tuesday a similar group went to the Department of Labor’s district office in San Francisco, and then to the Mexican Consulate. The message was the same in each visit. “We want to work this year,” Sakuma worker Juan Galicia told DoL district representative Alberto Raymond at the San Francisco Federal Building.
Workers visited the Department of Labor because the regulations governing H-2A visas require an employer to advertise jobs and hire locally before it can start recruiting guest workers. The department’s Fact Sheet #26 states: “Employers are required to engage in positive recruitment of US workers. H-2A employers must provide employment to any qualified, eligible US worker who applies for the job.”
On its application for DoL certification, claiming it is eligible to recruit H-2A workers, Sakuma Farms says: “Employer will accept referrals from any source. Candidates are strongly encouraged to register at their nearest employment office” and “Candidates are encouraged to apply in person at [redacted] 8am to 4pm, Monday through Friday, for an interview. If candidates live outside the local area or if candidates are unable to go directly to the office location for an interview, candidates may call [redacted] to request an interview.”
Ventura, Galicia and others say that normally the company tells them by the end of March when to report for work, and offers them a space in the labor camps it operates for migrant workers. When workers called this year, though, they were told to wait until May for an answer. Meanwhile, the company filed its application for H-2A certification on April 11, for work that starts in June.
Egan Reich, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor, would not comment on the current Sakuma application. “The review of that application is being conducted in accordance with applicable laws and procedures,” he said in an e-mail message.
There’s an additional reason why workers question the company’s eligibility to recruit H-2A workers. Fact Sheet #26 says clearly: “Employers must also assure that there is no strike or lockout in the course of a labor dispute at the worksite.” Last year Ventura, Galicia and 250 workers went on strike at Sakuma Farms several times.
The first strike began on July 11, the day after one worker, Federico Lopez, was fired after a heated discussion in which a group complained that the piece rate was set too low. The Department of Labor has yet to explain why Sakuma Farms continued to be certified as an H-2A employer, despite the ongoing labor dispute. DoL spokesperson Reich said in a message, “I can confirm that we did not approve a labor certification application during a strike at this employer.” In a later message he added, “the only other piece of information I can share is that the application for temporary nonimmigrant workers in 2013 was certified on July 8.”
Lopez was rehired, but over the next three months, workers walked out of the fields several times, as anger grew over the wages and the conditions in Labor Camp Two, where they lived. “You have to make `weight’ as they say,” explains Ventura. “If you don’t make `weight’ they give you some days off, and if you still can’t make it, they fire you. And when you go to weigh what you’ve picked they always rob you of two or three pounds.”
When workers complained about the cabins in the camp, the company warned them not to tell the inspectors sent out by the county. “When we arrived [at the beginning of the picking season] the mattress was torn and dirty and the wire was coming out and poked you,” she recalls. “We notified them and they told us they would change it, but time passed and nothing happened. The roof leaked when it rained. They just stuffed bags in the holes and the water still leaked. All my children’s clothes were wet.”
According to Ventura, the company man in charge of the camp told her, “`Look, seora, if the inspector comes don’t show him your bed. Don’t say anything or there will be a lot of problems.’ So when the inspector came he followed us and didn’t let me say anything.”
In the course of the work stoppages workers formed an independent association, Familias Unidas por la Justicia – Families United for Justice. And in fitful negotiations with the company they discovered that Sakuma Farms had been certified to bring in 160 H-2A workers that August, to pick blueberries and blackberries. In the end, the company brought in more than seventy.
The presence of H-2A workers, however, had a big impact on the existing workforce as it tried to get Sakuma Farms to sign a written agreement, especially on the demand for higher wages.
Federal regulations require each state to set the wage for H-2A workers at a level that supposedly prevents employers from using them to undermine local wage levels. Sakuma’s application for certification this year lists the Washington State hourly requirement – $11.87/hour. Blueberries will be paid, it says, at a piece rate of 25 cents to 75 cents a pound.
Last year Familias Unidas por la Justicia wanted an improvement in both hourly wages and the piece rate – a $14 hourly guarantee, and a minimum price of $6 for a fifteen-pound box of blueberries. The company would not pay more than $4 a box, and a $12 per hour guarantee, saying that the higher demand would raise its labor costs too much.
When the company was questioned about why it needed H-2A workers, it said a labor shortage had led to the loss of blackberries and strawberries – it couldn’t find enough workers to pick them. But the farm was also unwilling to raise its wages to attract additional pickers. “If we [do], it unscales it for the other farmers,” said Ryan Sakuma in an interview last summer. He manages the operation with his father and brothers. “We’re just robbing from the total [of workers available]. And we couldn’t attract them without raising the price hugely to price other growers out. That would just create a price war.” He pegged his farm’s wages to the H-2A program: “Everyone at the company will get the H-2A wage for this work.”
A 2011 report by Farmworker Justice, a farm labor advocacy group in Washington, DC, states, “Guest worker programs drive down wages and working conditions of US workers and deprive foreign workers of economic bargaining power.” After sending a letter to the Department of Labor on April 24, together with a Seattle law firm, Farmworker Justice president Bruce Goldstein charged, “It is clear that Sakuma Brothers Farm seeks to displace domestic workers who have sought better wages and working conditions. The H-2A workers that Sakuma has requested do not have the same protections or ability to demand fair wages and workers, leaving them vulnerable to employer exploitation.”
Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community to Community , agrees. The farm worker advocacy and organizing project she heads in northwest Washington is the workers’ key source of support. “The H-2A rate limits what’s possible,” she says. “The workers asked for $14 an hour but had to accept $12 because that’s what the H-2A workers get.” She considers it a victory that Sakuma Farms managers negotiated with the workers at all, but thinks the main reason they did so was fear that strikes might have led to the suspension of last year’s H-2A certification.
Familias Unidas por la Justicia members did try to talk with the guest workers themselves when they arrived in August. The group’s president, Ramon Torres, met some of them in a local church, away from the labor camp where they were living. “They were very afraid. They said that they’d been told that if they talked with us they’d be sent back to Mexico,” he remembers. “They complained that money was being taken from their checks – they didn’t know why – and that the pay didn’t add up to the $12/hour they’d been promised.”
Sakuma’s longtime workers were upset that the company had renovated the camp where H-2A workers were kept, next to the ranch office. The cabins had insulation on the walls, and new mattresses, blankets, sinks and other amenities. Longtime Sakuma workers felt the company and the government were pitting immigrant guest workers from Mexico against immigrant Mexican workers already living in the United States. “We know they need jobs too, but all we’re asking for is a fair wage,” said Marcelina Hilario, a worker who participated in the strikes.
And while the H-2A workers might have had a nicer camp last year, the company’s application this year doesn’t describe such pleasant conditions. Job requirements include exposure to extreme temperatures, lifting sixty pounds, repetitive motion, mandatory overtime and others. The long-time workforce, should it show up, would have no place to stay, since the application now lists all four of the company’s labor camps as housing for the H-2A workers.
H-2A workers will be paid by the piece rate, with an hourly guarantee. But if they “fail to perform their duties in a timely and proficient manner” they will be warned, and after the third warning, fired. If there’s no work for any period, they don’t qualify for unemployment insurance, and can’t work for another employer in the meantime. Access to workers’ homes in the labor camp is restricted: “No family members or visitors of workers are allowed inside a unit or allowed to stay overnight in the worker housing grounds.” Even government inspectors for housing or working conditions must give the company a schedule of their visits in advance, and be escorted by company supervisors.
And the application claims there is no labor dispute.
Sakuma Farms’ desire for more H-2A workers reflects the growing use of the program in Washington State, and in the United States generally. In 2012, the US Department of Labor certified 85,248 H-2A visas. In 2013 it certified 98,813. A decade ago there hardly any H-2A workers in Washington State. In 2013 the US Department of Labor certified applications for 6,251 workers, a number that had doubled in two years. The nation’s second-largest contractor for those workers is the Washington Farm Labor Association, the contractor used by Sakuma Brothers Farms to recruit workers in Mexico. In 2013 WAFLA brought 4,541 H-2A workers into the state.
Expanded guest worker programs are part of the comprehensive immigration reform bills in Congress. S. 744, which passed the Senate last June, would replace the H-2A program with one that would grant up to 337,000 visas in the first five years. The local hiring requirement would be relaxed, and states would no longer set the wages. Berry pickers like those at Sakuma Farms would make $9.64 per hour – $2.23 below the wage Washington State told Sakuma Farms to pay its guest workers last year, and only 45 cents above its 2013 minimum wage of $9.19 an hour. Growers would no longer have to house guest workers, but could give them a subsidy instead. In most small farm worker towns across the country, hardly any housing is available for migrant families.
Republican proposals are even more extreme. The Agricultural Guestworker or AG Act (HR 1773) would allow growers to bring in 500,000 guest workers a year, ease requirements that they hire locally, and hold 10 percent of guest workers’ wages in escrow to ensure they leave after the harvest.
Familias Unidas por la Justicia has organized a support network of organizations that call for a radically different way of looking at the rights of migrants. One of its most important supporters is the Frente Ind¡gena de Organizaciones Binacionales (FIOB, the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations). Started in California in 1991, FIOB now has chapters throughout the state and in Baja California, where Oaxacans travel in search of work, as well as in Oaxaca itself. The organization calls for immigration reform in both countries – to protect the rights of indigenous people as migrants in the United States, and for an alternative in Mexico to displacement and migration forced by poverty and free-trade economic policies.
During last year’s strike, FIOB’s binational director Bernardo Ramirez visited the workers, and spoke out against the discrimination he saw they faced because of their indigenous origins. “Foremen have insulted them, shouted at them and called them burros [donkeys],” he charged. “When you compare people to animals, this is racism…. We’re human beings. Low wages are a form of racism too, because they minimize the work of indigenous migrants.”
In October FIOB signed a cooperation agreement with a US union, Local 5 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, in which they agreed to cooperate in helping indigenous Oaxacan workers understand their labor rights in the United States. Together they helped Sakuma workers organize meetings in California, and form the delegation to the Department of Labor in San Francisco opposing the company’s H-2A certification. That delegation was headed by Mike Casey, president of the San Francisco Labor Council and of UNITE HERE Local 2, the city’s powerful hotel union.
Rosario Ventura went to several of the meetings organized by FIOB, she says, because she needs her job in Washington again this year. “If they [Sakuma Farms] don’t call there isn’t really anywhere else to go. That is what we are waiting for, that call,” she emphasizes. Even though she has to take out a loan every year to get there, she wants to go back. But she also wants the job itself to change “because we can’t leave it like this. There is too much abuse. We are making them rich and making ourselves poor. It’s not fair. I want to have work, to have money to at least be in a better place. Make a little house and stay in one place with my kids. That is all I am hoping for.”
David Bacon is author of Illegal People – How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants , and the forthcoming The Right to Stay Home , both from Beacon Press.