Divide and Conquer
Jose Guadalupe Perez-Farias came to the United States from Mexico in 1970, and began to follow the crops up and down the Pacific coast. He harvested grapes, apricots and cherries, some nights sleeping in highway culverts to avoid being caught up in government immigration sweeps. In 1996, he settled with his family in Washington’s fertile Yakima Valley, where he continued pruning and picking apples and pears interspersed with work on a dairy farm.
In February 2004, Mr. Perez-Farias went to work for Valley Fruit Orchards. Within a few months, he said the first contingent of Thai workers appeared in the valley. “They kept them shut up in houses while we were working,” Mr. Perez-Farias told response. “We know something about them because they took some of us workers to repair the houses where the Thais were living. The houses didn’t have beds or windows. They kept them like animals. They didn’t have toilets, so they had to come out and use the portable toilets that we had in the fields.”
When the pear harvest got underway in August of that year, Mr. Perez-Farias and other Latino workers argued with the owners of Valley Fruit Orchards over how much would be paid per wooden bin of harvested fruit. “They only wanted to pay $13 a bin, but because the pears were so small that season, we said we needed to get at least $19 per bin,” he said. “They refused, and we hung around until about 11 a.m. that day, but by then the foreman was so mad it seemed he was going to bleed from the face. He said, ‘Everyone leave! I’ve got other people who will pick tomorrow!’ We didn’t want to leave because we have families to feed, and we take pride in our work. But they wanted us to quit,” he said.
The next day several dozen Thai workers were brought in. Mr. Perez-Farias said they did substandard work, and the grower lost money on the harvest. “For the people who bring the foreigners here, it’s a good business. The owners of the orchards didn’t know the Thais didn’t know how to do the work. Both the Thais and the growers were tricked. And we who have struggled all our life to get to where we are in our profession, all of a sudden it was all taken away,” he said.
He found other odd jobs in a packing house and a factory assembling manufactured housing. But angry about the way he’d been deprived of his work, in 2006 he joined a class action lawsuit against Global Horizons and two local growers. The workers claimed they were fired and replaced by the 175 Thai workers that Global Horizons brought to the Yakima Valley.
In 2007, a U.S. District Court judge awarded Mr. Perez-Farias and some 600 other Yakima Valley farmworkers more than $1.8 million in damages for federal labor law violations. The size of the judgment was subsequently reduced by a second judge, but then reinstated by a three-judge panel. The amount of the judgment is under review by the Washington State Supreme Court.
One of the elements of the farmworkers’ suit was that Global Horizons and the growers had discriminated against the Hispanic workers because of race. In a 2007 deposition for the court case, the former operations manager for Global Horizons, Ebony Williams, testified that Global Horizons CEO Mordechai Orian set a tone for the operation by characterizing local Hispanic workers in a bad light.
“He would just make it seem like ?. . . they’re all going to be illegal. They’re all going to be lazy. They’re drunks. They do drugs...These local workers are too much [of a] problem, too many workers’ compensation claims, too many headaches,” she stated.
Such racism played well with some growers, tired of resident workers demanding better wages.
Global Horizons — which in 2006 had its operating license revoked by Washington state after repeated wage and labor violations — used the H-2A visa program to import the Thai workers, but federal regulations prohibit H-2A workers from being used in a way that would negatively affect the working conditions or income of existing workers.
“The H-2A program is fundamentally unfair,” said Lori Isley, an attorney who represents Mr. Perez-Farias. “It deprives workers of their choice of employer, which is a basic human right. The program is set up not to depress wages or working conditions for local people, but that’s precisely what it does.”
In 2007, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that the H-2A program could be viewed “as a modern-day system of indentured servitude.” The center reported that, unlike U.S. citizens, “guest workers do not enjoy the most fundamental protection of a competitive labor market — the ability to change jobs if they are mistreated.
Instead, they are bound to the employers who ‘import’ them. If guest workers complain about abuses, they face deportation, blacklisting or other retaliation. Federal law and U.S. Department of Labor regulations provide some basic protections to guest workers, but they exist mainly on paper. Government enforcement of their
rights is almost non-existent.”
The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent of response. Follow his award-winning blog at kairosphotos.com?/blog.