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A death ignites labor tensions at berry farm near Canada

KUOW file photo/Liz Jones
An H-2A worker at a farm near Carnation, WA.

Labor tensions have erupted at a berry farm in Sumas, Washington, on the border with Canada. Advocates say more than 120 people have walked off the job after a worker fell ill and later died.

Harborview Medical Center officials confirm the man, Honesto Silva Ibarra, died on Sunday. His death has sparked questions and outrage among his fellow workers.

Men who worked the fields alongside Silva described him as 28 years old, married and a father of three children. He came to Washington for the blueberry harvest as a temporary worker from Mexico.

A video from a makeshift camp in Sumas, near the Canadian border, pans to several workersas they call out where they’re from in Mexico — Guanajuato, Nayarit, Michoacan. They were all brought here on the federal H-2A program to work at Sarbanand Farms.

“The only thing they wanted was to ask for information about his medical treatment,” says the voice behind the camera. It belongs to Ramon Torres, a leader with a farm union in Skagit Valley called Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

Advocates said Silva reportedly collapsed in the fields last week, then was in a coma at Harborview.

A fellow worker, Misael Gonzalez Montes, said Silva complained of a bad headache to company staff on at least two consecutive days last week and they did not offer any support. 

Gonzalez said Silva tried to get a plane ticket back to Mexico but wasn’t able to take a flight because of an expired visa. 

“After feeling really bad, he decided on his own to go to the hospital and paid for everything out of pocket because the company wouldn’t take him there," Gonzalez said.

As the workers sought answers about Silva's care, they said they also raised concerns about undercooked food and company policy that discouraged sick days.

“In order to be heard, we stopped working for one day so that the company would pay attention to our demands for this fellow worker,” said Barbaro Rosas Olivares, one of the H-2A workers at Sarbanand Farms.

“We also wanted explanation about why we’ve spent more than a month working for this company without visas,” Rosas said.

Rosas said the workers who participated in strike were promptly fired in retaliation and given one hour to clear out of the farm housing.

[asset-images[{"caption": "H-2A worker, Misael Gonzalez, said he was fired after complaining about poor conditions at Sarbanand Farms.", "fid": "138281", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201708/h2a_sign_smaller.png", "attribution": "Credit Facebook photo"}]]“It is a labor issue and we do not comment on such matters,” said Norm Hartman, a spokesman for Sarbanand Farms. “We hope that the issues can be resolved soon.”

Tim Church, a spokesman for the Washington State Department of Labor, said the agency is looking into the fatality to assess any potential workplace safety factors.

“We want to know more,” Church said, to determine if a formal inspection is warranted.

The Mexican consulate in Seattle is also looking into the situation.

The King County Medical Examiner has not yet released information about Silva’s cause of death.

In the meantime, the H-2A workers are camped out less than two miles from Sarbanand Farms. Videos show dozens of donated tents, suitcases on tarps, a fridge and coolers packed in the yard.

The workers are consulting with an attorney. It's unclear if they will return to work or to Mexico.

Washington is one of the top five states that uses the H-2A farm labor program, with 13,689 jobs approved in 2016.

Year started with KUOW: 2006