Activists fight for farmworkers’ rights in Skagit County

By Brittany Hale

When people think of worker exploitation, chances are their minds would immediately direct them to some faraway, third world country. However, on Oct. 11, 2013 Familias Unidas por la Justicia visited University of Washington Tacoma’s campus and opened student’s eyes to exploitation happening right under our noses. In Skagit County. Familias Unidas por la Justicia, or Families United for Justice, is an organization consisting of farm workers at Sakuma Bros. Farms in Burlington. In all, there are over three hundred workers, most of whom work side by side with family members. These workers, led by President Ramon Torres, have recently begun boycotting Sakuma Bros. Farms in an effort to negotiate a contract for fair working wages and health insurance.

It all started in July, when workers began a strike against Sakuma Farms in response to the firing of a co-worker who had the courage to ask for better wages. In some cases, Torres explained during the presentation on campus, workers would receive as little as $25 for working eight hours. There are even underage workers on the farm who receive $4 per hour. Sakuma Bros. also denied workers the right to breaks, which state law requires every four hours. Torres, who was aware of his rights, would regularly take his breaks while others were told to keep working. According to Torres, Sakuma Bros. “knew who they could push around.” After the strike, Sakuma Bros. agreed to the terms set forth by their workers and switched to a $12 per hour wage. Since then, they have not held up their agreement and reverted back to their old ways.

Underneath the exploitive treatment by the company lies clear racism toward migrant workers. Torres asserted that Sakuma Bros. believes the workers are simply “Mexican peasants without study.”  The management at the farm has worked hard to implement a “caste system” in which workers are divided by skin tone and dialect, with those who speak Spanish or have lighter complexions receiving more benefits and better treatment. The workers stay in cabins provided to them by Sakuma Bros. The cabins, meant to hold about four people, sometimes house families of eleven. When workers would find dead animals in the mattresses, management at Sakuma would simply ask: “Why are you complaining?”

Torres, who was fired from the farm in September for his role in organizing, continues as the organization’s president. They have recently been featured on King 5 and work hard to raise awareness and support. As UW students and fellow human beings, it’s important to support Familias Unidas por la Justicia by taking part in a boycott of berries grown at Sakuma Bros. Farms. Although the organization has had a hard time tracking the berries, they have determined that they are marketed as Driscoll’s and are used in Haagen-DazsStrawberry Ice Cream.

If you would like more information on how to help, please visit the organization’s Facebook page or go to their website at www.foodjustice.org.