How Farmworkers’ Fight for Fair Wages Is Emerging in Your Produce Aisle

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Analysis Human Rights

How Farmworkers’ Fight for Fair Wages Is Emerging in Your Produce Aisle

s.e. smith

You may not have heard of Sakuma Brothers, but chances are high that you are familiar with one of its major commercial customers: Driscoll’s Berries. The multinational is square in the crosshairs of a current boycott orchestrated by Sakuma Brothers employees.

UPDATE, August 19, 5:00 p.m.: Rosalinda Guillen of Community to Community Development informed Rewire that some Sakuma Brothers workers walked off the worksite again on August 18, returning to the job on August 19 after negotiating with farm management for more than two hours. Sakuma Brothers managers, Guillen says, agreed to lower the poundage quota to 16.5 pounds, reflecting sparse pickings on the fields.

Last month, workers at Sakuma Brothers Farms won the right to paid rest breaks for all Washington piece-rate farmworkers in a state supreme court ruling. The case came a year after the company agreed to pay an $850,000 settlement to employees in owed back pay, which the pickers’ lawyers reported as the largest of its kind on record in the state.

You may not have heard of Sakuma Brothers, but chances are high that you are familiar with one of its major commercial customers: Driscoll’s Berries. The multinational is one of the biggest heavy-hitters in the industry, and it’s square in the crosshairs of a boycott orchestrated by Sakuma Brothers employees. The state supreme court ruling was a victory for the workers, who formed a self-identified union in 2013, but they say Sakuma Brothers still won’t meet their demands. So they’re using a host of tools at their disposal to try to persuade their employer to meet them at the table—including court actions, the boycott, and strikes, the most recent of which began Monday.

The workers’ union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, which currently includes just Sakuma Brothers laborers but could expand to other farms as well, is being supported by groups like Community to Community Development, a nonprofit organization in Bellingham, Washington that works in solidarity with marginalized people to increase awareness of their campaigns and empower them to lead social justice movements. However, Familias Unidas is still fighting for an opportunity to bargain with Sakuma Brothers, as Edgar Franks of Community to Community Development told Rewire. Sakuma Brothers management refuses to recognize Familias Unidas as a union, he says, and subsequently won’t agree to sit down and establish a collective bargaining agreement.

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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In 2013, workers began asking consumers to boycott Sakuma Brothers. But given that the average shopper may not know where their produce really comes from when it’s packaged under a generic corporate label, the workers are also calling for members of the public to stop purchasing Driscoll’s products in general, in the hopes that the corporation will stand with the workers and pressure the farm into negotiating with its employees.

Workers have walked off the job repeatedly in response to what they call Sakuma Brothers’ ongoing refusal to negotiate a union contract. But they’ve also done so in an attempt to raise awareness of other problems they say they face on the job. One such issue is poundage quotas: mandates on the number of berries they must pick per hour. Although Sakuma Brothers says it guarantees a minimum hourly wage of $10, workers claim they make under that amount if they’re unable to meet quota. In addition to being difficult to attain—Franks gives the example of 35 pounds of blueberries an hour—the workers say that Sakuma Brothers has randomly changed quotas, making it difficult to tell how much they’ll be making daily. They say, too, that the company isn’t flexible when fields are sparse, with few berries to harvest.

The quotas allow Sakuma Brothers to pay on a per-pound basis, rather than an hourly one. The company claims workers can make up to $40 an hour on their pay system, which a representative reiterated in a statement to Rewire post-publication, saying that the average hourly wage this picking season has been over $17. Franks says this possible hourly maximum of $40 is highly unlikely—if not effectively impossible—to reach, given how quickly people can realistically pick. Instead, workers say they can end up earning much less depending on their skill level, the poundage quota set on any given day, and the condition of the field. Under exemptions to labor laws that allow farms to pay on a piecework basis instead of an hourly one, such compensation is totally legal for farmworkers.

In response, workers are asking for a set hourly rate so they know how much they’re earning before they arrive at the job, rather than being confronted with such unreliable piecework-based pay. They also want health benefits, reflecting the fact that even after the Affordable Care Act, many people cannot afford health coverage and can’t pay for medical treatment out of pocket. A statement from Sakuma Brothers issued after publication claimed that the company provides health insurance, child care, and housing for workers.

A walkout by some workers on July 23—the third this summer—in response to what they referred to as these “unattainable production standards” highlighted the fact that the employees are deadly serious about addressing pay and working conditions.

Workers at Sakuma Brothers say they don’t just face difficult poundage quotas. They’ve also reported abuse from supervisors, including the white youth who weight-check their berries and make judgment calls when weights need to be rounded up or down. As covered in the Stranger, farmworkers at Sakuma Brothers with years of experience have recalled being subjected to racial slurs and stereotyping by farm employees who earn more than them and are relative newbies in the agricultural sector.

As is often the case with agricultural labor, injustice in the fields can be a particular issue for women. Generally speaking, women must also contend with sexism in the fields and the burden of needing to care for their families in addition to working long days at farms. Lack of access to health care, a key issue for undocumented immigrants without labor protections, is a particular problem for women and children, who have a lot to lose when they can’t see doctors for routine visits.

Franks noted that things are changing. For one thing, the union’s legal wins are stacking up: In addition to the settlement and the win in the Washington Supreme Court, Familias Unidas also targeted Sakuma Brothers with a suit regarding alleged abuse of H-2A visas, those used to allow companies to import agricultural labor from other nations. The workers claimed that Sakuma Brothers was using replacement labor that violated federal law on how such visas should be used; the berry firm did not file a 2014 application for H-2A visas. Furthermore, workers successfully won an injunction last year when Sakuma Brothers attempted to bar striking workers from returning to work and using company housing.

The boycott of Sakuma Brothers’ products and of their customers—namely, Driscoll’s Berries—is also picking up steam. Familias Unidas, along with groups working in solidarity, are running pickets large and small on a weekly basis at the Sakuma Brothers Farms location as well as West Coast grocery stores, wholesalers like Costco, and events hosted by Sakuma Brothers. As a result of the growing number of pickets, Franks says, more consumers and produce buyers at stores like Whole Foods are starting to express awareness of the problem.

Sakuma Brothers did not return requests for comment before publication. After publication, a company representative said in a statement, “This has been one the best years the harvest workers on our farm have ever had in terms of wages. The farm also recently had an Elevate Social Responsibility Audit and passed with high marks. Sakuma Brothers Farms is concerned with doing the right thing for its valued, highly respected workers and their families.”

He continued, “Sakuma Brothers Farms is one of the most progressive farms in the country. Sakuma cares for its workers and values them as a vital part of its business.”

In a statement to Rewire, Driscoll’s representatives claimed the company “proactively audit[s] our growers,” stating that independent auditors had found nothing out of order at Sakuma Farms during an inspection last fall—notably, however, the summer is the peak of berry season. Many workers had moved on to California to take advantage of seasonal jobs by the time auditors arrived, which would have given them an incomplete picture of the conditions on the farm.

The company also pointed to a meeting in the spring of 2015 facilitated by the Fair World Project, an organization working in solidarity with the farmworkers to draw public attention to the boycott and worker demands. During the meeting, Driscoll’s representatives met with Sakuma Brothers workers to discuss their concerns—but while the company says it’s committed to freedom of association, “we cannot insist on a union contract at any farm or play a direct role in any labor negotiations.”

Kerstin Lindgren of the Fair World Project told Rewire that brand involvement like name-checking Driscoll’s—as well as Nestlé properties like Yoplait and Häagen-Dazs, which also source from Sakuma Brothers—is a powerful tool in agitation for better working conditions, as “Sakuma Brothers” isn’t a household name, but the multinational firms that buy from the company certainly are. The organization delivered a petition in March demanding that Driscoll’s suspend purchases of Sakuma berries until the labor dispute is resolved, with approximately 10,000 signatures, which led to the meeting with Driscoll’s executives. Through a coordinated consumer campaign, the organization also orchestrated nearly 7,000 emails directly to Danny Weeden, the CEO of Sakuma Farms. Though the company has started a public relations-orchestrated website, Sakuma Facts, in response to labor organizing efforts, its representatives haven’t appeared to respond to specific calls for comment from the media.

Still, Familias Unidas’ allies feel that the laborers’ requests are not unreasonable.

“I think what the workers are calling for is nothing really revolutionary or out of line, nothing that can’t be done,” the soft-spoken Franks remarked. 

UPDATE: This piece has been updated to include remarks from Sakuma Brothers representatives.