Recent Story in the Stranger Manipulates the Truth to Reach Writer’s Conclusion
On October 2, 2013, the Stranger, an alternative newspaper based in Seattle, published a story titled, “Sakuma Brothers Berry Boycott.” Despite providing the reporter factual information about the ongoing labor issue, the published story glosses over these important points to paint a picture that has little resemblance to the reality of the situation. The most important fact ignored by the writer is that the real target of the opposition is not Sakuma Brothers Farms but the H-2A Guest Worker Program. For the first time in our history, we sought assistance from the federal governments guest worker program to secure an adequate workforce so all the berries can be harvested. The labor activists don’t like this because they claim it takes jobs away from domestic seasonal laborers and drives down wages and benefits. If this was true, our company and family would join their protest. But, it is not true and we are using this program because in just the past two years we have had to leave nearly 500,000 pounds of berries in the field unpicked because we did not have enough workers necessary for harvest. We simply want and need a stable, legal and cost-effective workforce to harvest our crops. The H2A program is not the best solution, but it is the only solution available from the government.
Here are some more facts that were ignored in the Stranger story:
The Stranger: Photo of Berry Pickers in the field with the caption: Workers allege that Ramon Torres, below, was fired for his role in recent strikes. The spokesperson for Sakuma Brothers Farms insists Torres was fired for other reasons.
FACT: The one and only reason for the firing of Ramon Torres was due to his recent arrest for domestic violence and spousal abuse. Ramon was arrested by Skagit County Sheriffs on August 30th (Case Number C00062705) at the farm workers camp at Sakuma Brothers Farms. According to the arrest report, Torres had pushed his wife Deanna Torres as well as “hit her and pulled the previous day.” We take domestic violence very seriously, especially spousal abuse in our housing. Due to safety concerns for all workers and people in the camp, we had no choice but terminate him and remove him from the camp. Our society has witnessed too many deadly instances when domestic violence and spousal abuse were ignored or covered up. The fact is that Ramon Torres was arrested for assaulting his wife and, thus, was considered a threat to the entire camp.
The Stranger: There’s a labor camp in a dirt clearing—a grouping of wooden sheds with tin roofs, some larger cabin-size models. The mattresses inside the sheds look ratty and old, and the workers complain that rain leaks through the roofs. It reminded me of refugee settlements I’ve seen in Haiti.
FACT: This simply is not true. If our living conditions in the housing we provide free to our workers is so awful, why do a number of families who live year round in our community give up their own apartments or residences to live in our housing during the summer? Workers are not required to live in employer provided housing as a condition of employment.
The Stranger: Luis was not making minimum wage this summer, despite working eight-hour days on his knees picking strawberries for Sakuma Brothers Farms, he and his family say. I deserve to get paid minimum wage, and that’s it,” he said. “They weren’t paying the kids minimum wage for the whole season.”
FACT: We did have a payroll glitch early this summer which was outside of our control. But, it was corrected immediately and those employees were paid their full amounts. We use ADS (DataTracK), which is well-known for its highly-reputable electronic data tracking. We download the data from our in-field electronic scanners and this combined with registration data (name, date of birth, address, etc.) is then sent to ADP who cuts the check. ADP’s payroll program takes care of all aspects of payroll including the proper withholding and related deductions. ADS had a programming problem when they transitioned payroll calculations from 2012 to 2013 which impacted a very small group of workers who were also minors. Due the glitch, these workers were treated as “exempt” from minimum wage. As soon as Sakuma Brothers Farms discovered the problem, we manually calculated the earnings of every affected employee and they were paid the full amount earned. ADS made the programming correction and the system has worked fine since then.
The Stranger: In mid-July, Federico Lopez was working in the fields when he complained to his supervisor about low piece rates and asked for a raise. The supervisor claimed this violated the company’s “no intimidation policy,” according to the workers, and Lopez was fired that day.
FACT: Federico Lopez was fired for threatening and intimidating his co-workers. Despite his actions, his fellow workers wanted him back so we gave him a formal warning and reinstated him.
The Stranger: to stop hiring white teenagers from Skagit County to do tasks the workers themselves could do, like checking the weights of boxes of berries that workers bring in. the teenage checkers, explaining that they have the power to decide whether to round up or down when a worker brings in a bucket that weighs, say, 12.5 pounds. It creates a racial hierarchy of inexperienced white kids bossing around Latinos who are older or have worked on farms all their lives, he says, which is why the farmworkers called for an end to the practice.
FACT: As a business, we place people according to where they can best contribute. Race has nothing to do with it. The ability to read, write, do math, and operate technology is the criteria for these jobs. We pride ourselves in the fact that we have worked with many of our worker families for years and many have gone on to positions of leadership in our community.
The Stranger: the farm also agreed to bump wages up slightly, and to hire migrant farmworker teenagers, like Luis, into more senior positions. They say the farm even agreed to consult with farmworkers each day to set pay rates based on the physical conditions and the difficulty of labor in a given field of berries. Those were encouraging developments, but there were doubts, even at that time, that the agreements between the farm owners and the workers would be enforced and lasting.
FACT: This is another example of a ridiculous charge without any basis in fact. We have never reneged on an agreement we made to negotiate or discuss any aspect of this dispute. But the idea of negotiating piece rates prior to picking a specific field is not feasible or practical.
The Stranger: Since the guest workers showed up, everyone has been making at least $12 an hour. However, once the farm is done with guest workers, they would be under no obligation to keep paying domestic workers that wage.
FACT: Under the federal guest worker program, the wages are set by the program and the wages are a minimum of $12 per hour. We are required by federal law to pay exactly the same wages to the domestic workers as the guest workers who are doing the same work. That means all those involved in picking berries are paid a minimum of $12 per hour. No differences, no discrimination. But, because we have an incentive per piece pay system, most workers get more than that. Depending on the type of berry picked, the average is about $13 to $14 per hour, with some making as much as $30 per hour. This is well-above the minimum wage in the State of Washington is $9.19 per hour which is the highest in the nation.
The Stranger: Torres was summarily fired for his role in the strikes. Farmworkers contend that Torres was fired for refusing to negotiate proposed minimum productivity requirements that grower Ryan Sakuma sought to implement as a condition of the wage increase.
FACT: The firing of Ramon Torres was due to his recent arrest for domestic violence and spousal abuse. Ramon was arrested by Skagit County Sheriffs on August 30th (Case Number C00062705) at the farm workers camp at Sakuma Brothers Farms. According to the arrest report, Torres had pushed his wife Deanna Torres as well as “hit her and pulled the previous day.” He was considered a potential safety threat to other residents living in the camp.
The Stranger: Other workers claimed that their colleagues had been arrested multiple times for getting into fights, or breaking and entering, but were never penalized by the farm.
FACT: We fired Mr. Torres in accordance with our employee policy of maintaining safe conditions for our employees after the court issued a five year restraining order against him for domestic violence. We will not allow that kind of activity in our worker housing.
The Stranger: The day after the march, farm co-owner Ryan Sakuma went to the labor camp to deliver “last checks” to workers, but he insists it wasn’t to kick the workers out or evict them. The workers interpreted Sakuma’s appearance at the camp as an eviction threat. “They’re under unbelievable stress. They’ve lost wages; they’re wondering what’s going to happen.”
FACT: Workers are provided housing free – there is no charge for utilities. Residents pay a refundable damage deposit for the housing. However, federal rules under the H2A program prohibit damage deposits during the contract period. At the end of the season, those employees who came in June or July for the start of the berry harvest and paid a deposit prior to the H2A contract period, will have their damage deposit refunded upon a closing inspection. Under state law, the final paycheck must be available at the next regular pay period after employment ends.
The Stranger: says “security guys” hired by the farm since the strike began following her around. “One of them… he would pop out. I was kind of scared to go to the bathroom, so I would go before it got dark.” Deanna, Ramon, and their daughter have since moved out of the labor camp and into a Burlington apartment. But the rest of the workers still had to contend with the farm’s hired security personnel hovering around.
FACT: We do have security in the camps because many workers have told us they have been threatened or intimidated by the organizers of the labor committee to join them and go on strike. These workers have told us they simply want to do their jobs and earn money which is why we asked the security team to assist. No one followed Deanna Torres around but given that her husband was arrested for domestic violence against her, the security personnel onsite only added to her safety in the days that followed his arrest.
The Stranger: a Skagit County judge handed down a temporary restraining order barring the security personnel from the labor camps. Superior Court judge John Meyer found that the workers “have a clear legal right to… full freedom of association, self-organization,” and they “have a well-grounded fear of continuing invasion of those rights.” This is because farm management “placed security personnel at labor camps where Plantiffs reside in such a manner as to potentially surveil the statutorily protected concerted activities of the Plaintiffs and in a way that chills the exercise” of those activities, the judge wrote.
FACT: We respect the Judge’s ruling and are fully complying. The ruling stated specifically that the guards were to stay one half mile away from the worker’s camps to prevent the possibility of them conducting surveillance on the labor organizers. This is a matter of law. We provided the security guards after our workers complained about being intimidated by the labor activists to not report to their jobs. The fact is that most of our workers have continued to work throughout the summer despite the heavy intimidation, lies and pressure by the labor activists and those few supporting them. In response to our worker’s request for help, we hired the guards to provide them increased safety. The guards never conducted surveillance activity and never interfered with any organizing activities. The guards provided workers who wanted to go to work, that they would not be physically threatened or hurt. As a result, the vast majority returned to work. Activists objected because it constrained their threats to workers.
The Stranger: Now the workers are trying to build on the momentum of their court victory with intensified calls on the public to boycott Sakuma Brothers Farms berries. Last week, delegations of workers, including Ramon Torres, picketed at Seattle-area stores selling the berries. At Uwajimaya, produce managers agreed to temporarily pull them, but the store director tells me he wants more information before making a final decision. Lois Ko, who owns a franchise Häagen-Dazs store in the U-District, joined the boycott almost immediately. “We are not going to be serving strawberry ice cream, to support the pickers who are being mistreated at the farm,” she told me, adding that she plans to visit the farmworkers’ labor camp herself to see the conditions.
FACT: The reality is that any boycott against us will hurt the seasonal berry pickers the most. The labor activists involved have made it clear in public statements that their activities are about farm worker conditions across the nation. They have repeatedly lied about Sakuma Brothers, our employee practices and worker conditions. As an example–they said we fired Ramon Torres in retribution for his role in leading the strike activities when the fact is that we fired Mr. Torres in accordance with our employee policy of maintaining safe conditions for our employees after the court issued a five year restraining order against him for domestic violence. We will not allow that kind of activity in our worker housing. We are confident that when our customers know what is behind this activism, their extreme and dishonest tactics and the way in which some media dutifully promotes their outrageous accusation that no boycott will be effective.
Why are we calling out the Stranger on their fictional account of this situation?
Most people in our community understand that the Stranger is not to be confused with the New York Times when it comes to responsible journalism. But, by repeating the lies and wild accusations of the outside labor activists against Sakuma, this article helps illuminate what is actually going on.
There is a serious labor shortage in our state and nation which has been well-documented by the media throughout the country. According to a new report by the State of Washington’s Department of Employment Security, our state was 7 percent short of the needed ag labor this past August. In July, Washington was 6% short and 8.8% short in June. The labor shortage is hurting farmers and resulting in higher food prices for consumers.
At Sakuma Brothers Farms, we have seen far too much of our crop, which is carefully cultivated throughout the year, wasted on the ground at harvest time because of the shortage of workers. In the past two seasons, we have had to leave nearly 500,000 pounds of berries in the field unpicked because we did not have enough workers necessary for harvest.
If we could fill this need with qualified domestic workers, we certainly would. But, by making use of the only federal government program available aimed at reducing this shortage, we have been attacked, vilified and had our business disrupted. Our workers, many of whom have worked with us for many years, are the real victims. Activists, working to enhance their own reputations, are hurting the very people they pretend to help. We are confident that once those interested see this struggle for what it really is—and the kind of twisted reporting demonstrated by The Stranger and other publications—that the unethical tactics used by these activists will cease.