Yakima groups support fruit workers on strike
Volunteers with the Yakima Immigrant Response Network (YIRN), which received the Faith Action Network's 2019 Justice Leadership Award, not only observe ICE flights out of Yakima but also now support workers striking in May at seven fruit packing plants in Yakima, Selah and Naches.
Members Danielle Surkatty and Mary Lopez told about YIRN's efforts and their reasons for involvement.
YIRN, which began in 2017 in response to fear in the immigrant community of ICE raids, also documents and challenges raids. Danielle also talked about its role in building respect for people of different backgrounds.
YIRN supports immigrant communities through Know Your Rights presentations, Family Safety packets, workshops, employer outreach, rapid response in support of the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network Hotline, raid verification observer training, rapid response, accompaniment and advocacy, and helping parents set up a power of attorney for their children in case they (the parents) are deported.
YIRN responds to community needs that arise and members participate based on interest.
Members accompany immigrants when they go to court, because ICE has been ramping up its arrests outside courthouses.
Danielle gave an update on YIRN's effort tracking flights that deport immigrants or transport them to detention. Their goal is to raise awareness, generate solidarity, advocate for change and let immigrants know they are not alone.
She is among the five members who continue to observe ICE flights. On May 19, the 64th flight transported 43 men and five women to the Mexican border for deportation.
Airport officials moved the observers to a smaller space so only five could come, not the previous 10 to 14 who observed regularly.
"We have counted 4,179 people transferred to the Tacoma Detention Center or deported to the border from the Yakima airport," she said. "I have been there for all but four flights."
She reported that only for the last month have ICE agents and their contractors with GEO Group and IAero Airways been wearing masks and doing medical checks before they put people on the plane.
"News reports say the people deported do not have COVID-19, but we do hear of people arriving in Guatemala and testing positive," she said.
Danielle grew up in Yakima, leaving in 1979 to go to college in Chicago and worked after graduation with the YMCA International Division in Central Java. She then worked with the Indochinese Refugee Resettlement program through the YMCA in Houston, after which she also worked with the Saudi oil company and the Indonesian consulate. After eight years in Houston, she returned to Indonesia, where she raised her three children for 14 years. She returned to Yakima in 2002.
Danielle brings to YIRN a strong commitment to social justice.
In Jakarta, she started her web design consulting firm and volunteered with a nonprofit publishing house, writing and selling guide books to foreigners. From 1989 to 1997, book sales raised $100,000 to $200,000 annually to fund projects in Indonesia for clean water, scholarships, tuberculosis education and development.
Danielle said living abroad and seeing the impact of poverty changed her outlook on life.
"I don't take for granted the prosperity of living in America because I have lived in places where many struggle to survive," she said.
This affects her outlook and relationships, and inspires her engagement with the immigrant community and her desire to be part of the solution.
"I want people to have a fair shake. The most vulnerable people are undocumented people, who are exploited and marginalized," Danielle said. "They just come to the U.S. to make life better for their children."
After working with people of different nationalities abroad and in Yakima, she finds "involvement with other cultures is the spice of life."
Danielle currently works as a web developer with businesses, governments, schools and nonprofits globally and in Washington.
She also helps coordinate community members who make masks for farm workers, fruit packing warehouse workers and grocery store workers. They hope to collect more than 5,000 face masks to give to farm workers in the county, aware that the health of those who pick and pack food—often immigrants—is important for everyone's survival.
"Despite Yakima having the highest rate of COVID-19 growth on the West Coast, few frontline retail workers wear masks," Danielle noted. "Our cases have gone up with 75 to 110 new cases every day in the last two weeks.
"News reports and the health department say 63 percent of workers in the Yakima Valley are considered essential workers because they are in agriculture," she said.
Thousands work on storage and packing lines at seven packing plants where there are strikes because of concern about working conditions, health precautions, disease spread and hazard pay.
Mary, who is a YIRN member and an organizer working with One America in Yakima, actively supports workers who are striking but have no union.
She said strikers are asking employers to provide better COVID-19 safety measures, such as masks, six feet of social distancing in buildings, a $2/hour hazard pay increase and protection from retaliation for protesting.
Mary has helped bring them food and talks with them to hear their stories and build their confidence.
"One woman worked for the same company for 26 years and is still being paid minimum wage," said Mary, who not only listens to their stories but also shares them on Facebook.
Many are mothers with children to support, so they continue to work, but are scared for their health.
During a phone interview, she passed the phone to Jenny, a member of the Yakama Tribe from Goldendale who has worked at one warehouse more than two years, and to William, an African American who has been there since last August.
Both heard that someone in their warehouse tested positive, but they were not informed who it was or whether the person was in their section.
They said their employer has installed Plexiglas between them and the fruit, and thin plastic sheeting between each worker, but workers were not always able to be six feet apart.
Both said strikers want supervisors to respect workers and communicate better with employees.
William said the company provided too few masks, so most wear homemade masks. Often hand sanitizer and soap dispensers run out so they cannot wash their hands.
Despite regular site inspections by the Yakima Health District checking on social distancing and sanitizing surfaces, the district confirmed 29 COVID-19 cases among workers at one warehouse.
According to an article in the Yakima Herald, inspectors said measures employers have in place meet guidelines, but "employers could do more to reduce exposure and improve communication."
By May 29, four of the seven resolved and the Governor announced new rules for agricultural industries as "essential" workers.
Mary said OneAmerica seeks a peaceful world where everyone's human rights and dignity are respected, communities appreciate differences and work for justice and equality.
OneAmerica believes the pandemic shows that everyone's health and wellbeing depends on their neighbor's health, and "we are only as safe and healthy as the most vulnerable members of our communities, so ensuring their wellbeing is how we ensure our own."
For information on YIRN, call 509-966-1529 or email email@example.com.
For information on the strike, call 509-386-3525 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Latino Civic Alliance calls for action to protect strikers
The Latino Civic Alliance (LCA) calls faith, nonprofit and justice organizations and tribes to support agricultural workers on strike in Yakima fruit warehouses.
The Faith Action Network (FAN) and Washington State Catholic Conference (WSCC) are among the organizations joining together to urge the Governor and State Legislature to protect workers by enforcing compliance with workplace standards and establishing protocols.
"As the pandemic spread in the ag industry, workers became sick or died, putting the food supply in danger," said Nina Martinez of the LCA board. "In Washington, where 90 percent of the agricultural workforce is Latino, data shows COVID-19 spreading at an alarming rate among them.
"The food industry has a responsibility to produce safe food in a safe workplace, and the government is responsible for setting safety standards, conducting inspections and ensuring that standards are met," Nina said.
"Food and ag workers are deemed essential, critical to the U.S. infrastructure, but have been excluded from benefits," she said. "Washington has one of the largest agriculture economies in the nation and ag workers contribute to local economies, but live below poverty levels, lack health benefits, sick leave and decent wages."
Agricultural workers have an average life expectancy of 49 years because of the working conditions in diverse jobs in fields, warehouses, orchards, farms, and meat processing plants.
On May 21, the alliance appealed for people and organizations to stand with agriculture workers so they have protections needed during the pandemic and beyond. Before COVID-19, farmworkers were vulnerable to illness from pesticides and poor working conditions, she said. The risk to the workers will continue into November. The LCA has a toolkit for congregations. That effort is ongoing despite some progress.
On May 29, the Rev. Connie Yost of the Farm Worker Ministry Northwest announced that four of the fruit packing companies in the Yakima strike have settled with their workers. Three others were still in talks.
Connie said the ministry has sought to "give these essential workers essential pay, essential safety, and essential dignity and justice."
The Governor also make a proclamation that day setting out protections employers must put into place to ensure safe work places for ag workers.
For information, call 206-661-0051, email email@example.com or visit at www.latinocivicalliance.org.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, June, 2020