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As Congress moves forward with immigration reform, we take a look at how this issue connects to culture, business and families in the Northwest.Our region is home to a unique blend of immigrants who work in all parts of our economy — from high-tech to agriculture. This population already has a deeply-rooted history here. And its ranks are expanding rapidly.Proposals for comprehensive immigration reform address border security, employment verification, guest-worker programs and pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US.

No workplace issues in farmworker death, investigation finds

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KUOW PHOTO/MEGAN FARMER
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A farmworker walks through blueberry fields on Wednesday, August 8, 2017, at Sarbanand Farms on Rock Road, in Sumas, Washington. H-2A farm workers protested working conditions after their coworker, Honesto Silva Ibarra, died on Sunday.

State investigators say a farm near Bellingham is not to blame for the death a worker last summer. But the owners face steep fines for other violations.

TRANSCRIPT

The blueberry harvest was at its peak when Honesto Silva Ibarra died last August. He was one of nearly 600 foreign workers Sarbanand Farms brought from Mexico last summer through the H-2A visa program.

Silva's death sparked concerns about health and safety issues at the farm in Sumas, Washington. Investigations followed.

Tim Church is with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.

“We wanted to turn over every rock to look for information,” Church said. "This is a tragic situation involving a worker and we wanted to know that the regulations and laws were being met.”

Investigators looked at workplace factors like sanitation, availability of drinking water, pesticide exposure and training about heat-related illnesses. They found no workplace issues contributing to Silva’s death. An autopsy also found he died of natural causes.

“We are relieved and reassured that state investigators concluded what we have known all along — that Mr. Ibarra’s death, while tragic, was not the result of the company’s actions or policies,” a Sarbanand spokesperson wrote in an e-mailed statement.

The L&I investigation did, however, find that that Sarbanand failed to provide rest breaks and scheduled meals.

For that, the farm faces a fine of nearly $150,000 dollars.

“Meal and rest breaks are important to people who are working any kind of job,” Church said. “But when you’re out in the elements working a physical job like agriculture, they’re especially important.”

Church said the fine was significantly reduced because Sarbanand cooperated with the investigation and corrected the violations. Still, he said it was the agency’s largest fine ever for this type of violation.

L&I plans to conduct a follow-up inspection at Sarbanand this summer.

Meanwhile, a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the farmworkers was also filed in U.S. District Court last week, alleging Sarbanand's managers used threats and intimidation against workers in violation of federal  labor trafficking laws. Sarbanand officials have denied the allegations and said they plan to fight the lawsuit.

Year started with KUOW: 2006