Workers' Rights
1:59 pm
Mon June 2, 2014

Sakuma Brothers Farms Withdraws Application For H-2A Guest Workers

Sakuma Brothers Farms, one of Washington state's biggest berry farms, says it has withdrawn its application for foreign guest workers under the Department of Labor's H-2A program. The move comes after workers who went on strike last year contended that the farm was using the program to replace them. 

Steve Sakuma, chairman of the board of Sakuma Brothers, said the farm withdrew its application over the weekend. 

The farm made headlines last year when workers walked out on strike, protesting what they said was poor pay and the farm's dismissal of a couple of workers who had spoken up. The berry pickers last year formed a workers' association called Familias Unidas por la Justicia and organized a boycott.

`Difficult year'

"The last year was a very difficult year for our family, our family business and our community," Steve Sakuma said in a statement. "It was sobering to witness the protests against our family-owned business and hear calls for a boycott against our berries. But, even though we have been in business for nearly 80 years, we listened to our critics and we recognized that we could do better."

A Skagit County judge last week issued a temporary restraining order telling Sakuma that it couldn't disqualify workers from employment this year for having gone on strike last year.

Sakuma had sent about 370 workers a letter in April, telling them that because they had five consecutive unexcused absences, they had been reported as "abandoned" to the Department of Labor. The workers hadn't completed their contract, Sakuma said, and therefore were ineligible to work this season. 

Rosalinda Guillen, a farmworker advocate with the Bellingham-based group Community to Community Development, says she's pleased by Sakuma's decision, but wants to make sure the workers who went on strike last year are able to apply for those jobs.

"We're hoping that he doesn't leave them out, and that he still continues to move toward a contract with them so we can see that there's fairness and justice," Guillen said. 

H-2A program

The H-2A program is designed as a supplement during times of labor shortage, but is not intended to displace domestic workers. Farm owners have to prove that they're facing a labor shortage before they can be approved to bring in guest workers. 

One matter that could still be contentious is the issue of housing for workers' families. John Segale, a Sakuma spokesman, says the farm will stick by its decision to no longer provide free housing for family members who aren't working on the farm. 

Familias Unidas is challenging that in Skagit County court, alleging discrimination under Washington state law.