A self-described anti-capitalist organization has revived discredited claims that a Whatcom County, Wash., berry farm caused a Mexican worker’s death last summer. The group is seeking to rally opposition to hiring foreign farmworkers and support for a consumer boycott.
Community to Community Development, based in Bellingham, emailed an “action alert” Saturday asking supporters to not purchase berries with the Naturipe label. The organization also said it will campaign to stop farms in northwest Washington from employing more foreign nationals on H-2A visas.
The organization restated accusations it made last summer that Sarbanand Farms, owned by California brothers Baldev and Kable Munger, denied Honesto Silva Ibarra of Mexico medical treatment and caused his death. The state Department of Labor and Industries investigated those claims and concluded the farm was not at fault.
“For any organization to suggest otherwise is simply false and would seem to be nothing more than a desperate attempt to mislead the public,” the farm said in a statement.
Efforts to reach Community to Community Executive Director Rosalinda Guillen were unsuccessful. Immediately after Ibarra’s death at a Seattle hospital, Guillen in media interviews accused the farm of overworking Ibarra in the heat and smoke from wildfires.
Gerald Baron, director of Save Family Farming, an advocacy group with no connection to Sarbanand Farms, called the continuing accusation a “vicious lie.”
“It’s absolutely not true, and she knows it’s not true,” Baron said.
Munger Bros. is the largest grower of blueberries in North America and one of four berry companies in North and South America that form Naturipe, according to Naturipe’s website.
Munger said last summer that a farm supervisor called for an ambulance right after learning Ibarra, 28, was sick.
Ibarra died four days later on Aug. 6 at Harborview Medical Center. The King County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Ibarra died of natural causes unrelated to his work, according to L&I. A nephew working at the farm said Ibarra was diabetic, according to the company.
L&I investigators, responding at least in part to accusations posted on Facebook, exonerated the farm in Ibarra’s death. A spokesman for the agency said workers were provided water, shade and heat-illness training. The investigation did find that workers missed one rest break and were served one meal late in late July. The company was fined a total of $149,800 by the state and Whatcom County.
The department has not released a copy of its investigation.
Community to Community’s action alert urged supporters to contact L&I Director Joel Sacks and demand he reopen the investigation into Ibarra death’s. Department spokesman Tim Church said Wednesday that the agency met its obligation to complete the probe within six months and did not have authority to reopen it.
“We stand by the conclusion that we found no violations of safety rules,” he said.
Community to Community has been in previous disputes with Western Washington farms. The organization was active in boycotting Driscoll’s berries and organizing a union to represent workers at Sakuma Brothers Farms in Skagit County.
“We are reaching out to you now to again ask you to use your powers as active consumers and activists to right another great wrong,” the action alert stated.
According to Community to Community’s website, its goal is to “end settler colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy in their external and internalized forms.”
The organization told supporters in Saturday’s email that it was “launching a campaign to block the expansion of the H-2A guest worker program” in Whatcom and Skagit counties. The group did not specify what it would do beyond asking consumers to not buy Naturipe products and to contact Sacks and other state leaders.
“We will be in touch again soon as we expect this to be a big fight!” the action alert stated.
Baron said Community to Community is hurting workers who earn more by coming to the U.S.
“Everyone needs to know the harm caused by those who cynically claim to be working on behalf of these workers,” he said.
About 70 foreign workers with H-2A visas walked off the job in protest after Ibarra was taken away for treatment. The farm fired the workers.
Columbia Legal Services has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Seattle alleging Sarbanand Farms underfed and overworked employees, and illegally fired the ones who walked out. The lawsuit does not blame the farm for Ibarra’s death, though the suit does allege that Ibarra’s hospitalization heightened concern over working conditions.
Munger has denied the allegations in the suit and said it will vigorously defend itself.
Since acquiring Sarbanand Farms, in Sumas near the Canadian border, Munger has spent millions of dollars on living quarters and outdoor facilities for workers, according to the company’s statement.