17 H-2A farm workers, through their union, filed a lawsuit today alleging that Larson Orchards Management, Inc. violated a written agreement where the company pledged it would not retaliate against any workers who joined together to correct serious labor law abuses during the 2017 apple harvest. However, Larson Fruit and its labor contractors have only rehired four H-2A workers from last year – none of whom participated in the strikes. The strikes brought about dramatic changes at the orchard, including the reinstatement of improperly terminated workers and the reassignment of an abusive foreman. The lawsuit, filed in Yakima Superior Court, asks the court to require that the company hire the workers back and seeks damages for lost wages.
“H-2A workers are highly vulnerable workers with few rights and protections. They take a huge risk to speak up about working conditions in part because of the rampant retaliation and blacklisting within the H-2A program,” said Joe Morrison, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services who is representing Familias Unidas por la Justicia, an agricultural labor union whose members include the H-2A workers. “Like others in the H-2A program, these workers live in poverty in Mexico and have very few options in Mexico to work and provide for their families. If they are blacklisted for advocating for better conditions, their opportunities to work in the U.S. are destroyed.”
In September 2017, a group of H-2A workers raised concerns about their workplace in a letter to Larson and refused to work until the owners met with them to discuss the problems. The complaints included threats, racial and sexual slurs, unjustified warnings and terminations, unsafe working conditions (e.g. spraying pesticides in orchard blocks where workers are working, broken ladders, etc.), lack of medical attention, refusal to take workers to the doctor, working 12-hour days with only one ten-minute break, and falsification of pay stubs. Instead, representatives from Larson and WAFLA told the striking workers to get back to work or go home to Mexico. The workers returned to work, but conditions worsened and Larson immediately fired three of the workers. Workers went on strike for several days and brought in Familias Unidas por la Justicia to help them negotiate with Larson and publicize their plight.
With the help of Familias Unidas, the H-2A workers reached an historic agreement with Larson to reinstate the fired workers, remove an abusive foreman, create a worker committee, and obtain an anti-retaliation pledge. As part of the agreement, Larson pledged not to retaliate against any workers who made complaints or participated in work stoppages. In the anti-retaliation pledge, Larson also agrees to refrain “from any communications with individuals or entities involved in the recruitment of H-2A workers that would result in employees at the Ranch being black-listed or denied future employment in subsequent years assuming they satisfactorily finish the 2017 H-2A contract.” However, when Larson worked with WAFLA to recruit 156 H-2A workers this year for work that was nearly identical to what was offered in the 2017 H-2A contracts, none of the workers who advocated for their rights were invited back.
The lawsuit alleges that Larson, the Washington Farm Labor Association (WAFLA), and CSI Visa Processing also violated Washington’s Little Norris-LaGuardia Act which the Legislature passed to protect all workers who join together to improve their working conditions. WAFLA and CSI are labor contractors who supply H-2A foreign workers to Washington farms and Larson, who owns and operates orchards throughout Yakima and Grant Counties, is a member of WAFLA.
The H-2A program is expanding rapidly and Washington state has seen some of the fastest growth of H-2A workers in the nation. Yet, workers and advocates have long raised widespread concerns with the program since H-2A temporary workers have fewer rights than domestic workers, are tied to a single employer, and are vulnerable to abuse or mistreatment (see “You Came Here to Suffer”).