Survey stirs debate over treatment of foreign sheepherders

When Ignacio Alvarado came from Chile to western Colorado to herd sheep, he encountered conditions he describes as “malas, malas.”

Alvarado experienced bad living conditions, bad food, and bad treatment at the hands of his employer, said Mesa State College Spanish professor Thomas Acker, translating for Alvarado in an interview.

Alvarado says he isn’t the only foreign herder to be mistreated in western Colorado. Eventually, he approached Acker about his concerns during a meeting of Western Colorado Justice for Immigrants.

The two went on to spend the past two years interviewing 93 foreign herders in western Colorado for a survey on behalf of the Migrant Farm Workers Division of the Colorado Legal Services nonprofit group.

This week, Colorado Legal Services is releasing the results of that survey. In it, sheepherders — many of them from Chile, Peru and Mexico — raise concerns about pay that’s as little as $750 a month, long work hours, isolation and other issues.  Until recently, Alvarado had worked anonymously on the project. But he’s no longer worried about reprisal from sheep ranchers.

“Not even if they were to pay me $3,000, I wouldn’t return to that job,” said Alvarado, who now lives in Fruita.

Colorado ranching representatives note that many other herders do return each year under the federal H-2A program, which allows for employment of foreign farm workers when there aren’t enough domestic ones to meet the need.

“I guess my question is: If it were so deplorable and so bad, why would they want to come back for multiple contracts and spend time doing what they’re doing?” asked Ernie Etchart, a Montrose sheep rancher whose own father came to the United States from the French Basque region in the mid-1900s to herd sheep before buying into a domestic operation.

Bonnie Brown, executive director of the Colorado Wool Growers Association, said herders often come here on the recommendation of family and friends.

“They know it’s an opportunity to send money home and improve their living standards for their families,” she said.

But Jennifer Lee, a co-author of the Colorado Legal Services report, said many herders come from situations of such poverty that they will take jobs at any cost.

State Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Denver, shares the concerns raised in the report and is proposing legislation to address them. Among other things, he hopes to raise the sheepherders’ minimum $750 monthly pay to at least $1,000, “which is still pretty paltry pay and far, far less than legal migrant farm workers get,” he said.

Colorado Legal Services says non-herding migrant farm workers must receive at least $9.88 an hour in Colorado. Some Colorado herders report working 91 or more hours per week, not including the time they are on call, meaning they average about $2 an hour, Colorado Legal Services says.

Brown said herders often have time to read, fish or visit other sheep camps. It’s important to note that ranchers also pay for herders’ plane tickets, as well as for their meals and housing while here, she said.

The Colorado Legal Services report portrays herders’ food as sometimes being subpar, and their housing as often consisting of primitive campers. Ranchers employing herders are exempt from migrant worker requirements to provide housing with toilets, showers, running water and electricity.

Etchart said housing is inspected by the state. He said he provides a tub in each of his camps.

“Showers are impractical because of the places that we go,” he said.

Brown said the sheep industry doesn’t condone abuse of herders. Although it has some bad employers, as in any industry, it has a lot of good ones, she said.

She said the herder survey is far from scientific and added, “It upsets me that they’re trying to take some isolated incidents and trying to paint the whole industry that way.”

Lee said the survey isn’t being portrayed as random or an in-depth statistical analysis. Nevertheless, she thinks 93 herders is a sizable sample of the roughly 300 thought to be in the state. The survey also represented 31 employers in seven counties, she said.

Acker said he doesn’t want to see the sheep industry harmed, and not all ranchers mistreat their workers, but some do.

“If our industries are going to rely on foreign workers, then we need to make sure that the treatment they’re receiving is the same treatment American workers receive,” he said.

Kagan said his bill is aimed at that small minority of sheep ranchers who don’t treat legal guest workers fairly.

“We should treat them like guests, not like the dogs that they use to herd the sheep,” he said.

But Etchart said as reforms are considered, it’s important to remember that sheep ranchers must meet their business obligations based on a limited price for their product.

“If the regulations or the standards are set so high that we can’t meet those obligations, it’s pretty simple: We’ll be forced to quit,” he said.


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