Photo Credit: Charles O'Rear, 1941
July 17, 2013 ?| ?
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Last week, over 150 farmworkers from Sakuma Farms near Burlington [Washington], a two-hour drive north of Seattle, walked off the job. The workers pick strawberries and raspberries. Sakuma Farms is a major supplier of berries to Haagen Dazs. The co-owner, Steve Sakuma, says chances are if you eat Haagen Dazs fruity ice creams, it's their berries that make them so delicious. Farm management has not returned calls seeking comment on the strike.
The workers, many of whom are undocumented, have a broad range of bold demands. They're calling on farm employees?from executives down to crew bosses?to stop with the demeaning bullshit already. "Cease and desist from disrespectful and racist language such as 'oaxaquita,' 'indio,' 'estupido,' and the use of stereotypes around inherent 'laziness,' 'drunkeness,? or 'dirtiness' of Triqui and Mixteco farmworkers," they say in a press release.
They say bosses should receive mandatory sensitivity training and be fired for racism. And they want paper receipts for their picked berries as well as better housing conditions?many of them live on labor camps run by Sakuma Farms.
Two key demands have already been met: The owners agreed to reinstate worker Federico Lopez, who was fired on July 10 for complaining about harassment, the workers say. And negotiations yesterday reportedly resulted in foreman Antonio Lopez, who workers describe as verbally abusive, being either dismissed or moved to another farm.
One of the biggest outstanding demands is for a more than doubling of wages from 30 cents per pound of berries picked to 70 cents. Workers say under the current wage rate, it's impossible to earn minimum wage. They're also demanding the farms pay for all overtime hours.
"If you want to make anything at all, you gotta really bust your ass. I cried when I was out there, because I hated it," Joaquin Martinez told me during a farmworker march in Bellingham in May. He used to pick raspberries?about half of the world's raspberries come from the region?with his family. "You'd go from bush to bush clipping all the dead stems. Half mile rows, sometimes longer... your break would be when you got done with one row, and you'd walk over to the next one."
"We have a saying as we go out to the fields: a matarse. We're killing ourselves now," Martinez added, with a wry laugh. He said the work would be bearable if wages were higher and they weren't so rushed.
Another of the Sakuma Farms workers' demands is for "adequate child care or reasonable working hours."
"It's technically illegal for kids under 13 to be working on the farms," Edgar Franks, a farmworker organizer from Communidad a Communidad, told me by phone today. "But around the whole labor camp there are tons of kids running around. The ones that are of age, there's no doubt that they're working."
Natalia Villa, a high school senior, broke down in tears as she told me about working in the fields as a minor, during the march in May. "You're on your knees to get the bad stems. You get scraped all over your arms and face. It was hard for me, because I was small and reaching and trying to not cut the raspberry stems," she explained.
"Sometimes we'd get in trouble for talking to our own siblings," she said. "It was horrible." Now she works as a custodian at her church. She's on her school's wrestling team and hopes to get a college scholarship. "I realized that farm working is not something I want," wiping away tears. "I want to succeed and prosper in life."