OLYMPIA — Retail sellers of agricultural products, regardless of where the product originated, who do business in Washington and have a worldwide gross receipt of more than $200 million, would be required to disclose violations of employment-related laws, incidents of slavery, peonage – or working to pay back debt – and human trafficking, under proposed legislation.
Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, is the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 5693, which passed from the Labor and Commerce Committee to the Senate Rules Committee on Feb. 21.
“It’s my job, I believe, as a consumer to make sure that I’m asking the hard questions around and supporting industry to be able to help us eradicate slavery and to make sure that people are having their human rights protected and respected,” Saldaña said. “This is really a step in that direction.”
Indira Trejo, the global impact coordinator for United Farm Workers, testified in front of the Labor and Commerce Committee in support of the bill.
“I have learned that globally farm workers face many of the same issues, around the world,” Trejo said. “Farm workers risk being seen as disposable and invisible, stripped of their human dignity and worth.”
Washingtonians want to know when a worker involved in the agricultural process is being treated unfairly, Trejo said. Carolyn Logue of the Washington Food Industry Association testified in opposition to the bill.
“We think what this will do is create a paperwork nightmare with significant liabilities for a lot of our businesses without dealing really effectively and efficiently with the very real problem of human trafficking and the other problems listed here,” Logue said.
Agricultural product is defined in the bill as cocoa, dairy, coffee, sugar and fruit products. The bill also defines what are not considered agricultural products, which is wheat, potato, onions, asparagus or other vegetable products.
Tom Davis with the Washington Farm Bureau noted that 95 percent of the farms in the state are family farms and that the “accusations” made in this bill towards them are “outrageous.”
“It presupposes that slavery, peonage and human trafficking are taking place on our family farms,” Davis said.
Under the bill, family farms that do not directly sell their product to consumers would be considered suppliers and would have to alert the retailers to human rights violations or employment-related laws listed in the bill.
The bill would require retail sellers to annually disclose violations of employment-related laws, court or arbitration rulings, citations or other rulings by governmental agencies, and criminal convictions on their website.
Companies also must disclose actions they took to evaluate and address the risk of slavery, peonage and human trafficking in their product supply chains. They also would have to note actions taken comply with employment law obligations and to respect workers’ human rights.
This bill would make no changes to what is considered a human rights violation and the violation could occur anywhere in the world to be listed but would need to be connected to a product sold in Washington by a company who is a retail seller, with a gross receipt of over $200 million annually.
If a supplier fails to report this information to the retail seller, the State Attorney General’s Office can take civil action. Statutory damages could range from $500 to $7,000. This action could be concurrent or coincide with actions taken by other federal or state agencies for other violations.
Dan Wood with the Washington State Dairy Federation noted there are already agencies tasked with doing this investigative work.
“We do not favor legislation that would require farmers or any other business to assume the role of investigators and regulators,” Wood said. “We already have agencies in the state and in the nation, that fulfill that role and much of their work and oversight is available as public records.”
Wood called this bill one of the worst bills he has seen in his 30 years around the Legislature.
The bill passed through the Labor and Commerce Committee with all the committee’s Republican senators — Curtis King, R-Yakima, John Braun, R-Centralia and Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla — voting against it.
SB 5693 is not yet scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Rules Committee.