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On strike: H2A workers take on Larson Fruit

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On strike: H2A workers take on Larson Fruit

QUINCY, Wash. — A crew of immigrant apple workers hired to work a rural Quincy orchard has undertaken a strike, complaining of threats from supervisors, health and safety concerns and retaliatory firings.

W&L Orchards, operated by Larson Fruit Co. in Selah, employs about 25 H-2A migrant workers under contract to bring in tree fruit from its parcel nine miles southwest of Quincy. Those laborers ceased work for a day last week over a list of grievances they forwarded to the company, then renewed their strike Sunday after three workers who spearheaded their demands were fired.

About 17 workers remained on the picket line Monday afternoon, said Imelda Mariscal, a former W&L Orchards worker who has provided support for the strikers.

“These guys are fighting because they are working in really poor conditions,” Mariscal said. “They have to work with broken ladders. They have to drink water that has been in jar for over a week. They don’t have clean toilets. … They are obligated to work, even if they’re sick.”

Micah Dunstan, chief financial officer for Larson Fruit, said the company has been communicating with the laborers since their complaints were made last week.

“Members of human resources and management have been on-site multiple days since then, actively investigating and trying to understand what their concerns are, so that we can address them and resolve them,” Dunstan said.

Mariscal said most W&L Orchard workers are from Mexico. The workers have been on the job since February under an H-2A contract that furnished them with U.S. visas, said Columbia Legal Services attorney Joe Morrison, who visited the site Sunday

Edgar Franks, an organizer with the Bellingham civic action group Community To Community, said in a Facebook video Monday that orchard workers were threatened with deportation if they did not speed up their rate of harvest. The workers sent a list of concerns on Wednesday, and met with human resources managers Thursday, Morrison said.

“Ultimately, the company’s response was, ‘We want a list of people,’ and the list was either you want to continue to work, or you’re leaving, you’re going home,” he said. “(The company) didn’t want to respond to the concerns they raised.”

The pickers returned to work Friday, but Mariscal said many of them were followed and video-recorded at work by supervisors.

“They didn’t feel safe in that environment,” she said. “They couldn’t work like they always do.”

On Saturday, three H-2A contractors were fired “for what he workers believed were just kind of trumped-up stuff,” Morrison said.

Asked about that claim, Dunstan said, “We do not dismiss employees based on them making complaints. Dismissal decisions are made completely upon performance-related considerations.”

The remaining workers resumed their work stoppage, adding a demand that the fired workers be reinstated. “We’re fighting for those guys to come back to their job, because they need the money,” Mariscal said. “One of them has a wife who has to get surgery. One has a mother who has to get surgery. One of these guys’ dads has colon cancer.”

Dunstan said his company will continue to negotiate with the striking fieldhands. “Harvest will be a challenge if they don’t come back to work, that’s clear,” he said.

The Larson firm has been in the orchard and warehousing business for more than 50 years, and has farming parcels in the Quincy area as well as Yakima, Dunstan said.

Morrison said because immigrant workers are vulnerable to firing and expulsion from the country, the W&L laborers’ action speaks volumes about their resolve

“There’s a big risk, especially as an H-2A worker, for complaining in the slightest,” he said. “Let alone going on strike.”

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