Meaner Pastures

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

Jackson says the H-2A regulations covering sheepherders allow working conditions that most Americans would find intolerable. "They have special rules for sheepherders, which are even more outrageous and have less protections than for other agricultural workers," she says. "For most workers, the employer has to keep track of the hours they work every day. For sheepherders, there's no requirement like that. They're basically on call 24 hours a day for 52 weeks a year. I don't think anyone would work under those circumstances unless that was the only way they could get a visa."

If H-2A employees organize or try to stand up for their rights, Jackson says, the employer can always find an excuse to get them thrown out of the country. "If workers in one country organize," she says, "the employer can go to another country to get workers. They can always switch to another source of labor."

There are currently 246 people certified to work under the H-2A program in Colorado. They work for 102 different employers, indicating that most of them are hired hands on scattered ranches and farms around the state. This is a small percentage of the thousands of H-2A employees nationwide. The largest numbers of such employees are found in states like Florida, North Carolina and California, where farmers grow crops like tobacco, sugar cane and strawberries that are harvested by hand. The biggest crops in Colorado are corn, hay and wheat, which are usually harvested by machine, so most of the H-2A workers here tend livestock.

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

There is enough local demand for Peruvian sheepherders that as many as 100 of them work in northwest Colorado, says Carlos Velasco, the Peruvian consul general in Denver, and a total of about 1,000 Peruvians work in agriculture in the western United States. "There is a tradition of taking care of sheep in Peru," he says. "They're some of the best workers out in the field. They herd sheep and llamas all over the Andes."

Cynthia Rice, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance, has worked with several Peruvian sheepherders in California. She says that because of special provisions that were included in the law at the behest of former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson, sheepherders receive fewer protections than other H-2A employees. For instance, while most H-2A contracts are for a year or less, sheepherders typically sign three-year contracts. Rice also says the legal standards for housing for the sheepherders are much more lax than for other workers. "Sheepherders are exempted from most regulations because of this incredibly powerful [sheep industry] lobby." A group of Peruvian sheepherders in California even filed a complaint over their treatment with the Peruvian Human Rights Commission, she adds, and there is now an effort under way to organize the sheepherders in California into a union.

"The government of Peru is very concerned about the treatment of the Peruvian sheepherders," says Velasco, adding that his office was contacted by several Peruvians about the Peroulis ranch. "Mr. Damian was battered," he says. "We proceeded according to international law and notified the Labor Department."

Jose Cabada, the editor and publisher of the Peru News Review in the Los Angeles area, says the president of the Human Rights Commission of the Peruvian Congress came to California last year to talk to Peruvian sheepherders. "He was surprised how many sheepherders don't see their paychecks and don't have enough food," Cabada says, adding that he believes about 10 percent of the ranchers who hire Peruvian sheepherders abuse or exploit them in some way. "The best solution would be if they published a list of the ranchers who abuse the sheepherders," he says.

"These ranchers have a lot of power," Cabada continues. "They work with the INS and police. It's like the old Western movies. They own the sheriff and the whole town. It's like the Old West, the same thing."

The H-2A program is named after a section of the Immigration Reform Control Act of 1986. It was created after farmers and ranchers claimed there were jobs going unfilled because Americans didn't want them. The law mandates certain minimum standards that employers must meet when hiring foreign workers under the program. This was partly to defuse criticism that H-2A was simply a continuation of the notorious "bracero" program that brought millions of Mexican farmworkers into the country beginning in the 1940s. The braceros were often treated little better than slaves, and, like the H-2A employees, they were bound by contracts. The program ended after Edward R. Murrow's famous 1960 CBS documentary "Harvest of Shame" exposed the appalling conditions of farmworkers in Florida.

Two government studies have noted the potential for abuse of H-2A employees and criticized federal agencies for failing to enforce legal protections for those workers. In 1997, the General Accounting Office concluded in a report that "H-2A guest workers may be less aware of U.S. laws and protections than domestic workers, and they are unlikely to complain about worker-protection violations fearing they will lose their jobs or will not be hired in the future."

The Labor Department's own watchdog, the Office of Inspector General, concluded in a separate 1997 report that the department had done a poor job of policing the program. It faulted the department for rarely fining employers who violated the law and noted that farmers and ranchers were almost never suspended from the program, even after a pattern of abuse had been established.

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