Herding sheep -- quite possibly Colorado's worst job

A couple of eons ago, I got my first introduction to hard labor as an ill-paid apprentice on my uncle's ranch in southern Colorado. I herded and branded cattle, hauled feed, chopped the ice that covered the water tanks and pulled bawling calves out of the mud. It was brutish, filthy, back-breaking work, but I consoled myself with the thought that some people had it much worse -- like Eddie.

Eddie was the sheepherder. He lived on the ranch full-time, in a squalid camper besieged by banshee winds. No running water, no electricity, no toilet, no phone. Just the cheap food and booze my uncle brought him, along with a measly check now and then. It was a life of isolation and penury that had changed little since the pioneer days, seemingly designed for illiterate and untrained types like Eddie who didn't have much choice in their career selection.

My uncle and Eddie are both long gone now. But according to this report from Colorado Legal Services, not much has changed for Colorado's sheepherders since those days.

CLS researchers interviewed nearly a third of the state's immigrant herders, many of them workers from Peru, Bolivia or Mexico who are brought to Colorado by the sheep industry. The report claims that the vast majority of the herders don't get time off, don't have access to toilets or other conveniences, and are paid around $750 a month.

Yeah, but what about all that fresh air?

Many of the conditions that the report finds deplorable are actually quite legal. The program that allows ranchers to bring in the imported labor also exempts the herders from certain wage and living-condition requirements imposed on behalf of other migrant workers. But the study, only the third of its kind in the country, also found that some ranchers are skirting even this program's minimal conditions, such as a requirement to provide adequate ways to safely store food. Judging from this Denver Post article, the industry's response to these allegations seems to be that things must be okay because people still take the jobs.

The do-gooders at CLS would, of course, like to see the herders get functional bathrooms and respectable pay. That may be unrealistic, given the hardscrabble state of the livestock industry and the remote areas in which they must work. But the fact that poor immigrants can always be found to take the worst jobs doesn't justify the kind of exploitation outlined in this report. If work is to have dignity, then Eddie's successors deserve safe shelter, decent food and an occasional day off.

I think my uncle would have agreed with this, if Eddie had ever bothered to object. He needed Eddie as much or more than Eddie needed him. But Eddie never complained. Either because of fear of retaliation or unfamiliarity with the language and the law, herders have a reputation for being stoic to the point of muteness.

Maybe that will have to change before anything else can.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast