Opinion: Fair wages needed for sheepherders | PostIndependent.com

Opinion: Fair wages needed for sheepherders

Tom Acker
Guest Columnist

The issue of fair wages has occupied much of the media this year. Seattle, Wash. passed an ordinance to raise the minimum wage to $15. Wal-Mart and fast-food workers organized to push for higher wages. We in the United States depend upon foreign labor for 90 percent of food production. It is time we become aware of the treatment of agricultural workers and the fact that, if these workers are being abused, we, as consumers of that food, may be participating in that abuse.

Recently, the GJ Sentinel carried an editorial in which the over arching message was that changes to the current H-2A guest worker visa program that the US Department of Labor oversees, particularly wage increases for foreign non-immigrant workers, would ruin the sheep ranching industry in the U.S.

Similar, singer perspective approaches to this issue have appeared in newspaper articles throughout our region. As is to be expected, the view of the ranchers, which, logically, is one that benefits them, makes no mention of the workers' experiences other than the exaggeration that "workers make four times what they make in Peru" when they sign on to H-2A sheepherder contracts in Lima.

What has been ignored by most writers is why the Department of Labor (DOL) is rewriting the rules. As an appeals court judge determined, the agency failed to adhere to its own rules in setting the wages on workers' contracts because:

There was an inadequate number of survey participants to provide sufficient data;

The surveys were supposed to have been done annually, but were most recently based on 2013 survey information.

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No public input was incorporated into the earlier DOL research.

As a result of the missteps by the DOL, the wages paid to H-2A visa workers have been kept artificially low for several decades. Workers from Latin America, mainly Peru, make the trek to the US to better provide for their families. Even with a 100 percent increase above the current $750 per month, wages would still not rise above the U S poverty level for a typical family of four. With a 200 percent increase over current the wage, bringing wages to $2400 per month, sheepherders would move just above poverty level. These low wage rates need to be changed.

Another recommendation activists advocate be implemented is that there be a clear distinction in the pay-scale between the work done "on open range" and that done "on the ranch." This is because many in the ranching industry have exploited workers and paid them herder wages when, in fact, these workers have been driving heavy machinery, performing chores, including carpentry and pipe laying. This way ranchers avoid paying higher US wages for work done on the ranch. One worker I recently interviewed said that in the year and a half he had been on his H-2A contract he spent only three months working as a herder and the rest of his time was spent working on the ranch.

Currently, not only are workers' labor on the ranch under-paid, they are also not provided access to a shower, laundry facilities or a bathroom, but are made to live in the camp trailers as if they were on the open range. In addition, their movements are controlled by the rancher and they typically work more than 12 hour days with no days off. Ranchers will complain that they are being made to shoulder an immense infrastructure improvement. What we should all be asking is why workers have been allowed to live in 6 by 10 foot camp trailers with no amenities while they are on ranch property? Because the workers are on ranch property, access to a bunkhouse is justifiable and should have been allowed years ago.

In a June 3 article by Greg Moore in the Idaho Mountain Express titled "Sheep ranchers claim proposed rules would kill the industry" Jon Marvel, former executive director of Hailey, Idaho based Western Watersheds Project, is familiar with the until now special treatment of the ranching industry. Moore summed up the ranching community's sense of privilege by which they access public lands at below-market leasing prices and have benefited from wages kept artificially low.

"Sheep ranchers want to be held immune from market economics in their labor and forage costs," said Moore, "and that sense of entitlement is worthy of public discussion."

Tom Acker is a Board Member of Hispanic Affairs Project.