Workers’ Memorial Day: Group Calls for Justice After Farmworker Death

Farmworkers in Sumas, Wash. protested after their fellow laborer died while working during wildfires last year. Photo Credit: Edgar Franks/Community to Community Development

Eric Tegethoff
Public News Service

SUMAS, Wash. – Saturday April 28 was Workers’ Memorial Day, a commemoration of people who’ve lost their lives on the job. In Washington state, the farm community is remembering Ernesto Silva Ibarra, a 28-year-old farmworker who became ill last summer while picking berries during wildfires and later died.

The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries fined Sarbanand Farms, where Ibarra worked, for two infractions after the incident – not providing timely meals and rest breaks to workers. However, Edgar Franks, civic engagement coordinator with the group Community to Community Development, thinks the investigation should be reopened – for Ibarra and other farmworkers.

“They’re in a precarious position and put in a position where they can’t defend themselves, and if they do defend themselves, they get threatened,” says Franks. “So, this is why we’re asking for L&I to reopen the case. We want justice for Ernesto and the hundreds of other farmworkers that were sick.”

He says other workers also became ill during wildfires last year. Sarbanand was scheduled to dispute the fines in court this week, but the case has been delayed until May 23rd. L&I fined the company nearly $150,000, but the agency did not find Sarbanand responsible for Ibarra’s death.

After Ibarra’s death, about 70 workers at Sarbanand went on strike and were fired. Like Ibarra, the laborers were in the country on guest worker or H2A visas.

Franks sees that visa program as exploiting workers, affording them few rights and no ability to unionize. He says it’s compounded by the inherent danger in agricultural work.

“When people come to work, they expect to go back and be with their families,” says Franks. “So, that’s why we still fight for justice for Ernesto Silva and the many other farmworkers.”

Farm work was the second-most deadly occupation in the country in 2016, the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.