Union, former H-2A workers sue Larson Orchards

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A labor union is suing a fruit company, the WAFLA farm labor association and a recruiter alleging they blacklisted H-2A guestworkers, who went on strike last year, from being rehired at the same company this year.

CAPITAL PRESS – DAN WHEAT – YAKIMA, Wash. — A labor union is suing Larson Orchard Management Inc., WAFLA and CSI Visa Processing alleging they retaliated against 17 former H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers by not rehiring them this year after they went on strike last year.

Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ), a Burlington, Wash., farmworkers union formed in 2013 to represent workers at the Sakuma Bros. berry farm, filed the suit against Larson, WAFLA and CSI in Yakima County Superior Court on June 14. The lawsuit asks the court to require the company rehire the workers and seeks damages for lost wages.

“These workers live in poverty in Mexico and have very few options to provide for their families. If they are blacklisted for advocating for better conditions, their opportunities to work in the U.S. are destroyed,” said Joe Morrison, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, which is representing FUJ.

“H-2A workers are highly vulnerable workers with few rights and protections. They take a huge risk to speak up about working conditions in part because of the rampant retaliation and blacklisting within the H-2A program,” Morrison said.

Keith Larson, president of Larson Fruit Co., Selah, had little comment, saying he had just learned of the lawsuit. WAFLA director Dan Fazio could not be reached for comment.

WAFLA, previously known as the Washington Farm Labor Association, hires H-2A workers for member companies including Larson through recruitment contractor CSI in Durango, Mexico.

In September 2017, H-2A workers at Larson’s W&L Orchards nine miles southwest of Quincy quit picking apples to protest alleged bullying by a supervisor for allegedly not working fast enough, alleged unsafe work conditions and other complaints.

In response, several state Department of Labor & Industries inspections found no serious violations, Larson said at the time.

Three workers were fired, then reinstated and an agreement was reached between FUJ and Larson in which Larson agreed not to blacklist the workers the following year. Larson said last year that he might hire them again if they did good work but that there were no guarantees.

In response to the lawsuit, Larson said the agreement does not require him to rehire the same workers. He declined comment on the quality of their work after they returned last season from their strike.

The lawsuit alleges Larson, WAFLA and CSI violated the agreement this season when they recruited 156 H-2A workers with only four from last year who did not participate in the strike. The 17 who did strike weren’t rehired.

Further, the lawsuit alleges violation of Washington’s Little Norris-LaGuardia Act, which protects all workers who join together to improve their working conditions.

Posted By: Dan Wheat, Capital Press, Published on June 18, 2018 10:15AM

Picture: Dan Wheat