Housing Bill Signed Over Farm Worker Objections But Locke Says It’s Just The Beginning Of Efforts To Shelter Seasonal Workers

Gov. Gary Locke on Wednesday signed a farm worker housing bill to make it easier and cheaper for growers to put up housing for their temporary workers.

Locke said SB6168, which also provides $2 million to begin building permanent housing for farm workers who stay in the state year-round, is “just the beginning” of the state’s efforts to find shelter for the thousands of seasonal workers.

“What passes for a roof over the heads of these workers and their families ranges from tarps and tents to cars or cardboard boxes,” he told reporters. He later called it “our state’s No. 1 housing problem.”

“We must all work together to fully solve this moral and economic problem,” he said.

The new law will exempt temporary migrant housing from many elements of the state building code, meaning farmers and others can build cheaper housing to be used only during harvest seasons. The structures could not be used year-round unless they met the building code.

The law was sought by farmers, state health officials and a bipartisan group of lawmakers. They argued that growers couldn’t afford to build up-to-code temporary housing, leaving thousands of migrant workers scrounging each year for a place to stay.

Though Locke promised to come back next year and try for even more money to build subsidized, up-to-code housing for year-round workers, the United Farm Workers union and other groups said this year’s legislation contained far too little money to build permanent housing. “This represents a return to the day of the Grapes of Wrath,” said Guadalupe Gamboa of the UFW.

Several dozen protesters, some wearing white gags over their mouths, demonstrated outside the governor’s office.

“No tents - no barracks. We are not farm animals,” read one of their banners.

Protesters released a statement that called the bill “a cruel hoax that has more to do with ensuring that agribusiness has an endless supply of easily exploitable workers than with addressing the shameful farm worker housing situation in this state.

“Gov. Locke sends a very clear signal to everyone that farm workers do not count and can be treated with indifference as second-class citizens,” the statement said.

But the Senate co-sponsors, Margarita Prentice, D-Seattle, and Alex Deccio, R-Yakima, said the bill is a major first step towards solving what Prentice called “an embarrassment to our state and a tragedy for our workers.”

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