Meaner Pastures

Life can get wild and woolly for herders who flock to the U.S. under a special law.

And allegations like these are nothing new. Affidavits filed in court by Labor Department investigators show that herders have been complaining about the Peroulises since 1990.

"I determined that the Peroulises failed to pay wages when due, took illegal deductions from the herders' wages for transportation and supplies in the amount of around $4,100 and knowingly provided false information to the Department of Labor," wrote investigator Joseph Doolin about a 1990 visit to the ranch. Doolin also said he met with Stan Peroulis after his investigation to discuss the H-2A law and how it applied to his employees.

Doolin investigated the ranch again in 1993, 1996, 1997 and 2000 and recounted numerous conversations with employees who told him they'd been abused. In 1996 he said that two sick herders had "asked the Peroulises for medicine but were told by Stan and Louis Peroulis to die. They were not provided with any medicine."

Consul General Carlos Velasco says Peruvians make good sheepherders.
Mark A. Manger
Consul General Carlos Velasco says Peruvians make good sheepherders.

Investigator George Peters said he interviewed a herder this year who told him he'd lost 22 pounds while working for the family. Another "told me that when he met some people who gave him a Bible and books to learn English, Louis and Stan Peroulis took the books away from him and burned them." Peters recounted other stories of herders being punched, kicked and spit at by Louis Peroulis. He also said several herders feared the repercussions of talking to Labor Department investigators. One herder told him that after he spoke to an investigator in 1993, "the Peroulises got angry at him for doing this and mistreated him even more, giving him less food and more work."

A third Labor Department investigator, Xochitl Muñoz, interviewed several herders last September. She said one told her that "he is consistently verbally and emotionally abused by the Peroulis family. He said that he was told by the Peroulises, at the time he was picked up at the airport, that he was not allowed to leave his sheep camp at any time and could not have any contact with the outside community until after his three-year contract is fulfilled. He is consistently threatened that if he does not perform work according to the Peroulises' satisfaction, he could be deported to Peru and would be prohibited from ever working in the United States again. He was also told he would not be paid if he did not fulfill his three-year H-2A contract."

The same herder told her that he was allowed to write to his family only if the Peroulises gave their permission, and that he wasn't allowed to call his family or take calls from them. He said his mail "is usually mutilated, damaged and opened by the time it reaches him. He does not complain to the Peroulises about the mail because he is afraid of being yelled at or beaten."

The Peroulises were fined by the Labor Department for violations of labor codes and paid $1,200 in 1995. They agreed to pay back wages owed to employees in 1990, 1993, 1995, 1997 and 1998. In 1997, they also agreed to maintain lists of the food and supplies they gave to the herders.

In all of the affidavits submitted as part of the case, the herders' names are withheld (although those who testified in court were required to give their names). Dean Campbell, the district director for the Department of Labor, says he decided to withhold the names because he feared for the men's safety.

"I believe strongly that revealing the names of the H-2A herders who provided information to the Department of Labor would result in serious harm to these individuals," Campbell wrote in a statement given to the court.

"In light of the history of the Peroulis investigations, and of the fear exhibited by the current herders who spoke to Wage-Hour investigators during the recent sweep, I believe that these herders, who have acted as government informants, could be subjected to further abuse by the Peroulises before any protection could be afforded to them or before the Wage-Hour investigators could monitor the Peroulises' compliance with any order the court may issue. This is especially true because the herders work in such remote areas that are difficult to reach, and because they have no access to telephones or other means of communicating with our office."

The sorts of abuses alleged to have taken place on the Peroulis ranch are almost inevitable under the H-2A program, say advocates for migrant farm workers. In fact, they say, the people who come into the country legally under this program have even fewer rights than those who are here illegally.

"They're vulnerable to abuse for a number of reasons," says Kimi Jackson of Colorado Legal Services, which provides legal help to people who can't afford it, including migrant workers. "The employer has the ability to get them deported. He controls their right to stay in the country. If you or I had an employer who abused us, we would quit and find another employer. If an H-2A worker quits, they immediately lose their immigration status." In addition, the employer usually pays for the workers' transportation costs into the country and often holds their passports while they are here.

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