OLYMPIA — Washington dairy farmers and fruit growers would have to report to retailers whether they use slaves under a bill endorsed Feb. 21 by Democrats on the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee.
Farm groups, for the record, say they oppose slavery, as well as human trafficking and peonage — two other forms of servitude producers would have to report.
At a hearing last week, farm lobbyists said the bill was offensive and asked the committee to kill it.
The committee excluded some commodities, but kept in dairy and fruit. By a party line vote, the Democratic majority recommended the bill to the full Senate.
“It’s still an attack on farmers,” Washington Farm Bureau director of government relations Tom Davis said. “It impugns the character of an entire industry.”
Introduced by Seattle Democrat Rebecca Saldana, Senate Bill 5693 would require farmers to report any incidents of slavery, peonage and human trafficking to retailers with more than $200 million in global sales.
Peonage is also called debt servitude and involves an employer compelling workers to pay off a debt through their labor.
More to the point, the bill would require reporting “any violation of employment-related laws.”
A retailer would be obligated to report on its website the “specific actions” it took in response to those reports. The attorney general could sue farmers or retailers for failing to report, respond to or publicize any adverse citations or court rulings.
“I must tell you, this is one of the worst bills I have seen and one of the biggest messes of legislation I have seen in 35 years around the Legislature,” Washington State Dairy Federation Executive Director Dan Wood told the committee.
Washington Potato and Onion Association lobbyist Jim Jesernig, a former legislator and state agriculture director, said potato and onion growers were angry, and so was he.
“One of the things I’ve learned in the 33 years I’ve been here is that if there is something that’s an outright lie, you have to call it that,” he said. “The supply chain that feeds you and your constituents are our farmers, ranchers and food processors. This accuses them of slavery and human trafficking.”
Washington Association of Wheat Growers lobbyist Diana Carlen said wheat growers were “quite shocked” by the bill and “personally offended.”
“They thought it came out of left field,” she said.
Carlen warned that legislation linking Washington wheat growers to slavery would be bad for exports. “It puts a black mark on our states,” she said.
On Thursday, the labor committee amended the bill to exclude potatoes, onions, wheat and vegetables from the bill’s definition of agricultural products. That left dairy and fruit, two sectors that have been accused by labor organizations of mistreating workers. The United Farm Workers endorsed the bill.
Saldana originally proposed letting any Washington resident sue farmers for not complying with the bill, even if the person suing had not suffered any injury or damage. That provision was cut.
Saldana said she wanted to make Washington a leader in informing consumers about farm labor practices.
“There was no mal intent,” she said.
Retailers would have to demand labor-practice information from producers of coffee, cocoa and sugar, too.
“This bill basically wants to take our companies and say, ‘Well, you’re responsible for everything that happens in every foreign country,’” said the labor committee’s top-ranking Republican, Curtis King of Yakima. “It’s just inconceivable we can put this kind of requirement on our citizens.”