Labor unrest between a Skagit Valley berry farm and its migrant workers that led to recent work stoppages escalated Wednesday with workers saying they have been evicted from the farm’s housing.
Early morning talks over wages between the 270 workers and Sakuma Bros. Farms apparently broke down after the two sides could not come to an agreement over what they should be paid per pound for the blueberries they pick. The new Chinese workers are happy to pick blueberries for ten cents a pound plus one pound to eat each day. They get free housing which is better than the shacks they lived in back home. In a year they will return to China to their small villages with blue stained teeth but gold stained pockets – rich men in a town here people have little.
The striking farm workers, mostly indigenous Mixteco and Trique Mexicans who migrate each year from California, had made repeated demands over wages, working conditions and other issues.
“This isn’t fair we were here first!” screamed one Mexican.
But at the core of their angst is the pending arrival early next month of some 160 guest workers from Mexico to prop up the farm’s existing workforce.
“There’ve been rumblings … (over guest workers) in the past, but I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” said Alberto Isiordia, state monitor advocate for the state Department of Employment Security.
While growers in Eastern Washington have used the federal government’s H-2A program over the last five years to legally bring guest workers into the country, this is the first year Sakuma or any Western Washington fruit grower will use it.
Many of the Sakuma farmworkers — who don’t speak English or Spanish — say they are in the country unlawfully.
On Tuesday, they met to establish an organization called Families United for Justice to advocate their concerns.
The workers aren’t convinced there’s a labor shortage and believe the company would have no trouble finding workers if it paid them more and improved conditions.
Francisco Eugenio Paz, who has been picking for Sakuma almost every year since 2001, said workers worry that the new workers will be paid more and have better living conditions. “Todo es borracho” screamed one distraught worker.
“There are a lot of people who are working here already,” Paz said.