January 6, 2018 Dena Jensen
On December 29, 2018 KGMI Saturday Morning Live show radio host, former Whatcom Tea Party board member, and current Common Threads Northwest board member Kris Halterman interviewed outgoing Washington state 42nd LD Representative Vincent Buys. Democratic candidate Sharon Shewmake defeated Rep. Buys in the November 2018 election. Ms. Halterman had him on the show to talk about plans he has made for his future after leaving his elected office and what community issues he thinks will continue to be important here in Whatcom County in the year ahead.
About 20 minutes into the show Ms. Halterman asked Representative Buys what he thought would be happening with agriculture and farming regarding regulations, “like for the critical areas ordinances, and all of these setbacks that the farmers have been, you know, crying, ‘if you do this to us, we’re not going to be able to make it, we won’t have enough land left over to pencil it out, to make it worth farming any more.'”
In answer, Rep. Buys spoke for about 30 seconds about water issues at this point in the show, saying he thought we were doing a great job on water issues here in Whatcom County. He did seem to have a number of criticisms to offer on how Whatcom County staff and officials are proceeding regarding water issues later in the show.
He then went on to another issue, labor. Representative Buys chose to speak specifically about labor provided by H-2A visa workers, imported from out of country to work on farms here in Whatcom County. There has been a lot of talk during 2018 of how demand for H-2A workers is growing by leaps and bounds. This information is supported by figures from the Department of Labor and the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. Wafla, a labor contractor in Washington state that recruits H-2A workers from other countries and provides services to farmers related to their employment of those indentured workers, has seen a healthy rise in profits each year and has recently invested in converting existing real estate properties into off-site housing for H-2A workers to try to facilitate, and additionally profit from, the increased demand for these laborers.
Representative Buys broached the subject of H-2A labor by bringing up the class-action lawsuit filed by Columbia Legal Services on behalf of around 600 H-2A workers who, according to the lawsuit, were subjected to labor abuses at Sarbanand Farms in Sumas, WA.
But contrary to the picture of farm owners hungry for imported workers portrayed by 2018 news reports, and by Representative Buys himself at a town hall meeting at the Blaine Senior Center in February of 2018, Rep. Buys now implausibly warns that due to perceived liabilities with labor, the need to provide housing for workers, and this lawsuit confronting abuse of workers by Sarbanand Farms, that farm owners are likely to just “mechanize” in response.
Here is a transcription (to the best of my ability) of Representative Buys’ remarks regarding labor on the December 29, 2018 Saturday Morning Live program which begins at around 20:39 on the audio recording:
Vincent Buys: Labor is going to continue to be a huge thing. We heard about the lawsuit now that’s continuing forward on Sarbarand [sic] Farms out there. They just got the okay to continue as a class action lawsuit. And so I think that’s going to be very damaging. I know our farmers are already taking a look at that and saying “how do we mechanize?” Sarbarand [sic] Farms has already, I believe, said that they’re not going to be going to – you know, they’re going to be mechanizing. They’re going to be getting rid of their labor force. So that directly impacts these migrant workers that come in, that voluntarily sign up for these H-2A programs, come to Washington State to –
Kris Halterman: Right.
Vincent Buys: – to make a living, make a wage to support their families in Mexico, or wherever they’re coming from. And now, all of a sudden, they’re not going to have that employment opportunity. And I think that’s going to be resonating throughout our berry community, throughout out dairy community, and other agriculture producers that are heavily reliant on that labor. They’re gonna to take a second look: “do I want to hire foreign labor?” And I think a lot of them are going to say, “if I can find a machine that will do it, I might have a high up-front capital cost,” but down the road they’re going to look at what are my potential liabilities with labor? What are my potential liabilities with providing housing? What are my potential liabilities with lawsuits from these activist organizations?
But why leverage increasing machine management of crops, which will make farmers worse stewards of the land due to the necessity of planting less diverse crops and increasing the need for pesticides, which is the opposite of what local farm advocacy groups have been promoting as the policy and goal of Whatcom County farmers?
It actually seems devious of Representative Buys to roll out an oft-used threat to workers’ sense of security like the mechanization of farm labor, when he has been hyping the presently questionable practice, statewide, of recruitment of contracted farm laborers from other countries which, due to current inadequate regulations and enforcement, can expose them to workplace abuses such as those experienced by workers at Sarbanand farms. The death of Honesto Silva Ibarra who worked at Sarbanand farms in the summer of 2017 still has a lot to teach our leaders and community members in Whatcom County, but those lessons aren’t about using the confrontation of surrounding labor abuses at that farm to strong-arm oppressed peoples into putting themselves in the very same position where such a tragedy can easily repeat itself.