Thursday, January 14, 2010

Mistreatment of Range Workers in Colorado

Florida of course is not the only state where agricultural workers face brutal exploitation and social marginalization. Right here in Colorado, there is no doubt poverty wages, harsh living and working conditions, and gross imbalances of power which provide fetile ground for abuse to flourish for workers in the state's agricultural industry.

The great folks at Colorado Legal Service's Migrant Farmworkers Division just issued an eye-opening report about the plight of Colorado's range workers - most of whom are from Peru but also from countries such as Nepal. Here's a brief write up about the report:

A report being released today found that more than 80 percent of a surveyed group of Colorado's sheep, goat and cattle herders are not permitted to leave their ranches, according to Colorado Legal Services.

Much of the treatment of herders is entirely legal due to the exclusion of herders from many of the federal regulations that govern the H-2A program. Sheepherders in Colorado receive a standard wage of $750 per month, as little as $2-3 per hour, regardless of hours worked, and are required by their contracts to be on-call 24 hours per day. Their housing is not required to have electricity, running water and toilets.

The report, conducted by legal services' Migrant Farm Worker Division over 2 years, surveyed 93 herders, essentially a third of Colorado's range workers.

Herders typically come to Colorado as part of the H-2A program, a federal program which allows agricultural employers to import temporary workers. The program has long been rife with labor abuses. *Read the CIW's critical analysis of "guest worker" programs here.* That said, almost all other workers in the H-2A program receive better pay, have better living and working conditions, and enjoy more personal freedom than herders do.

"Many herders have expressed concern over the past several years about the harsh conditions under which they live and work," said Jennifer J. Lee, managing attorney of the division and report co-author. "This survey attempted to quantify these concerns to show how prevalent they are."

Many of the herders surveyed expressed concerns about sub-minimum wage pay, long hours, poor living conditions, mistreatment by their bosses and feelings of isolation, according to the report.

Among the most striking statistics revealed by the report:

· Almost three quarters of the herders reported having zero days off over the course of a year.
· Approximately 35 percent were paid less than once a month.
· 85 percent were not allowed to have visitors who were not ranch employees.
· Roughly 70 percent reported never having access to a functioning toilet.
· 85 percent were never permitted to engage in social activities.
· Almost 50 percent reported not having the opportunity or ability to read their employment contracts.

"This report shows that there must be a change in the way herders in Colorado are treated," Lee said. "Herders come a long way from their home countries to work in our state, and they deserve decent wages and living conditions and more control over their own lives."

You can read the full report at There are also some interesting articles to come out about the report:
Advocates push change in working conditions for isolated immigrant sheepherders
Poor treatment of immigrant sheep herders alleged
Unsurprisingly, the ranchers quoted in the articles have no shortage of excuses and explanations to justify the exploitation of their employees. Say what they will, an industry whose survival depends on excluding already desperately poor people from basic economic, social and labor rights, has got to rethink its business model.

You can see for yourself the experiences of Colorado range workers by watching the videos at this link. We'll leave you with this one by Grand Junction Alternative Media:

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