October 22, 2018
Dear Candidate Schrier:
No doubt you have learned how hurtful your comments about “abusive farmers” are to our hard working, responsible farmers. But you may not be aware of how harmful your ill-advised comments about the H2A workers are to farm workers.
I came from Mexico when I was nine years old. I worked in farm fields in both Eastern and Western Washington along with many of my family members. I went to school and count among my friends the very farmers you suggest are abusive. Far from abusing me, they helped me get an education, get legal citizenship, go to university and graduate with a degree in accounting. I have been a senior executive for several area companies and now serve as Vice President of Finance for a farm-related business.
This year Washington farmers hired about 30,000 guest workers, mostly from Mexico. These workers not only made it possible for farmers to harvest their fruit and other crops, but they earned 20 to 30 times more than they could earn working on farm fields in Mexico. No guest worker may be hired until the farm proves to the satisfaction of the Department of Labor that domestic workers cannot be found to do the work. The guest worker law requires that farmers pay transportation to and from their homes, provide food at subsidized cost, provide free government-inspected housing and a number of other benefits not available to them in Mexico. There are numerous government inspections of facilities, policies and working conditions. Most companies buying from our farmers now require third party social audits that provide an additional layer of worker protection. I am not aware of other categories of workers in our state that benefit from the same degree of inspection and protection.
Washington farmers are required to pay the very highest minimum wage to guest workers in the nation because of our high minimum wage. This year the minimum wage for guest workers was $14.12 per hour. When domestic workers at the farm are doing the same work they are also required to be paid the high minimum. Most earn considerably more because of incentive pay and $25 to $35 per hour and more is quite common for productive workers.
The most important point is that our guest workers in Washington in 2018 not only made possible the harvest of critically important food, but they returned about $400 million or more to their families back home in Mexico. There are many respectable houses being built and full stomachs of children because of these very valuable jobs.
The term “indentured servitude” is an accusation made because guest workers are required to work only for the farm they contracted with or return home. The reason is simple: the farmer or labor provider is fully responsible for returning the worker back to their homes in order to prevent this program becoming an avenue for illegal immigration. Would you suggest an alternative?
The H2A guest worker program is extremely expensive for farmers and is getting more expensive all the time. But with domestic farm worker availability declining steadily farmers face a choice of leaving crops to rot in the fields and stop farming or hire guest workers and try to compete. We are losing out to foreign farmers at an accelerating pace because our very high cost of production. That’s why over 53% of our fruit now is imported. The CDC reports food borne illnesses have risen at the same pace as imported food, and the FDA reports that imported food is nine times more likely to have violative pesticide residues than domestic food.
Those, such as yourself, who seek to help farmworkers need to better understand the very best way they can help is to ensure our labor laws, trade laws, labeling laws and others provide a more level playing so our farmers can stay in business and continue to offer these jobs.
I hope you understand from this that the information on which you based your unfortunate comments was false. Those seeking to impose farm worker unions have consistently lied about the nature of the program and the treatment of workers by farmers. I would like to invite you personally to visit with farmers you believe have been abusive and also talk to farmworkers whom you intended to help by your comments. I’m very confident you will find that, like me, they believe you are misguided on this important issue and if you are elected and take action on it they would be the ones most harmed.
Project Director, Protect Farmworkers Now
Protect Farmworkers Now, a project of Washington state farming advocacy group Save Family Farming, continues to push back against labor activists' false accusations by exposing the harm these strong-arm tactics are causing the same farmworkers they claim to be helping -- restricting their ability to prosper from their hard work, and even threatening their jobs.
A recent Q13 FOX Seattle report highlights the concern: an Auburn-area family farm estimates it lost $100k after it was forced to disk 20 acres of zucchini under because they couldn't find enough workers to harvest the crop. Washington farmers across the board are struggling to find the people needed to continue to operate, and our region's housing issues and high cost of living are contributing to this crisis significantly. But so is the intense pressure from labor activist groups bent on taking advantage of--and deliberately worsening--our farmworker shortage to force unionization of farmworkers, which they view as an opportunity for growth in a time when union membership is lower than it has been in decades and still falling.
In Whatcom County we saw these tactics on full display last summer when a Sumas blueberry farm was accused of "corporate murder" after a diabetic worker ran out of his medication but did not tell the farm about it until it was too late. After his tragic passing, activists from Bellingham-based labor center Community to Community Development and farmworker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia seized on the headlines to accuse the farm of causing the death, and they're still making that claim even now, months after a Washington Department of Labor and Industries investigation cleared the farm of any wrongdoing in the man's passing. The groups' predictable answer to their false crisis? They say farmworkers in Whatcom County need to unionize -- a false solution to a manufactured problem.
In particular, activists say they're standing up for the rights of H-2A guest workers, but at the same time they're calling for an end to the H-2A guest worker program, which would deny work opportunities to those same workers. Why? Activists view the the guest worker program as a roadblock to forcing unions, because of the pressure it takes off of the farmworker shortage that they're trying to leverage.
Save Family Farming's Protect Farmworkers Now Project remains on the front line of this issue. We're countering the false claims of labor activists with facts, photos and videos of the truth about how farmworkers are being treated, and we're exposing the harmful motives behind these activists' actions. We've received coverage in local and regional media outlets and have reached thousands of people with our message via our social media channels. A recent guest editorial by PFN Project Coordinator Dillon Honcoop that the Lynden Tribune published generated a string of letters to the editor, as activist sympathizers were forced on the defensive. A social campaign earlier this year to show the excellent housing and working conditions at the Sumas blueberry farm with photos and videos caused activists to defend why they had called those conditions "degraded," unhealthy and unsafe for workers--when they clearly weren't. Now we've sparked an internal investigation at Evergreen State College into their use of taxpayer-funded vehicles to support labor activists' demonstrations and union organizing activity.
The Protect Farmworkers Now Project will continue to closely monitor the situation as we go into another busy harvest season. We expect the activists to continue their organizing efforts around farms in Whatcom County, and we know that they will be prepared to use any problem--real or otherwise--to their advantage. Please be sure to follow Protect Farmworkers Now on Facebook, and read more information about our efforts at http://protectfarmworkersnow.org.
Lynden Tribune Guest Editorial by Protect Farmworkers Now project coordinator Dillon Honcoop
It’s important to tell the truth, especially when many people’s jobs and livelihoods are on the line. That’s why it’s so troubling to see activists and their sympathizers continue to spread an insidious lie in our community.
Last summer, a worker at a Sumas blueberry farm was rushed to the hospital after having run out of his medication days earlier. Honesto Silva Ibarra tragically passed away at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
An exhaustive Washington Department of Labor & Industries investigation reported that the farm was in no way responsible for Mr. Silva Ibarra’s death, but that truth is apparently an inconvenient one for activist labor groups like Bellingham-based Community to Community Development, who wanted to capitalize on news coverage of the tragedy to further their labor organizing efforts. They have falsely claimed that “degraded conditions” and management failure caused Mr. Silva Ibarra’s death, going so far as to label it “corporate murder,” and continuing to do so even after L&I’s investigation proved them wrong.
A recent letter to the Lynden Tribune from a concerned citizen perhaps inadvertently continues this pervasive lie. “A young H2A worker died due to poor working conditions and management oversight,” Naomi Murphy wrote in the letter the Tribune printed May 9th. It’s one thing to express genuine concern for the workers, it’s another to continue to make false statements when the truth is out there for all to see. Either Ms. Murphy is entirely ignorant of the facts of the tragedy, or she’s intentionally communicating false and harmful accusations.
It’s deeply troubling that activist labor groups continue to claim in interviews, social media, website posts and elsewhere that, among other mistreatment of workers, the Sumas farm caused the worker’s death. Their pressure on the Department of Labor & Industries and the publicity they generated caused the Department to issue a fine 40 times greater than one normally assessed for rest and meal break violations. It is shameful for a Department to punish a farm based on lies communicated about them, especially when they themselves determined the accusations to be lies!
The H-2A program, despite activists’ claims that it amounts to “virtual slavery,” provides some of the best worker protections anywhere, including good wages, subsidized meals and free housing and transportation. The employer has to make sure that the worker returns home after completing their work. If a worker can go from one farm to another, the employer can't be expected to pay for transportation and housing, and prevention of illegal immigration becomes impossible.
The activists seek to establish farmworker unions. It’s a free country and people can pursue whatever agenda they want. But this agenda hurts workers because it takes away jobs they very much need, hurts consumers by rapidly increasing the amount of food we import, and hurts farmers through their vicious lies and political pressure. Workers are exceptionally well protected as the massive fine against the farm for break violations shows. What other business do you know would be fined $150,000 for a few late rest or meal breaks? It’s time for those who care about these farmworkers to tell Community to Community, the activist group behind this, that enough is enough.