WAMSUTTER, Wyo. - (AP) — Alone and thousands of miles from home, the immigrant sheepherder roams some of the West's most desolate and frigid landscapes, tending a flock for as little as $600 a month without a day off on the horizon.
"You take it or leave it. You take it because the economy is worse at home," Pepe Cruz, a 40-year-old Peruvian, said in Spanish.
Cruz is one of hundreds of immigrants from South America, Mexico and Nepal who work as sheepherders in states like Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and California, and their brutal work conditions are getting increased attention these days.
Advocates are pushing for improvements in working conditions for the sheepherders, with a Colorado lawmaker planning to introduce a bill this session to raise their minimum wage to $9.88 an hour. That is the amount other Colorado farmworkers are paid.
Colorado Legal Services, a Denver-based nonprofit legal assistance network, visited sheepherders with temporary work visas in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming and found they sometimes toil more than 90 hours a week, can't leave the isolated sites where they work and are grossly underpaid by U.S. standards. The group's report on the conditions was to be released Thursday.
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Rep. Daniel Kagan, a Democrat from Denver, said sheepherders often don't speak English, don't know where they are, and depend entirely on their employers for food, water and contact with the outside world.
"It struck me as a situation rife with the possibility of abuse, and I was afraid that we were looking at a situation of indentured servitude, of near slavery, right here in Colorado, and that troubled me a lot," Kagan said.
The struggling U.S. sheep industry argues the immigrants — and the current pay scale — are crucial to its survival and that the jobs give foreign workers opportunities for a better life back home.
Peter Orwick, executive director of the American Sheep Industry Association, said any cost increase to ranchers — wages, fuel, grain — can shut them down. About two-thirds of U.S. ranchers have quit over the last 15 years because of competition from abroad and the competition to wool from synthetic fiber, he said.
"We couldn't survive without these men," said Anthony Theos, a rancher and president of the Colorado Wool Growers Association. Theos said he provides modern 16-foot trailers, solar panes for electricity and propane tanks to heat food. Workers keep most of the $750 a month they're paid, Theos said.
"We want them to be comfortable," he said. "They protect our livelihood."
Colorado Legal Services interviewed 93 shepherds over two years in western Colorado and adjacent parts of Wyoming and Utah. Sixty-one came from Peru.
They work seven days a week and are on call 24 hours a day, the survey found. In some cases they are miles from the nearest town, living in small, often shabby trailers with room only for a bed, a woodburning stove and 5-gallon water coolers.
Seventy percent of workers interviewed said they didn't have a toilet and 54 percent said they had no electricity. Forty-two percent said their employers kept their passports and other documents and that they feared deportation if they complained about conditions.
Cruz has worked off and on as an immigrant sheepherder for 10 years. Typically, he and other herders work at ranches for three years, then have to go home for a time before reapplying for temporary H2-A visas, which are largely designed for migrant laborers.
Cruz said he earns four times what he can in Peru and has put two siblings through college. He also wants to start his own bus company.
"Based on what I know about the minimum wage, what they pay us is very little," Cruz said as he drove one frigid day along the Wyoming plains spotted with snow and sagebrush, a rifle on the front seat of his truck for marauding coyotes.
"I knew what I was coming to because I'd had relatives who had come here to do the work."
His day can begin at 4 a.m. and end late at night during lambing season. He delivers food and supplies to other shepherds, as they tend grazing flocks, round up strays with trained dogs and protect the sheep from predators.
"All day I have to take care of them," said Jose Quijeda Ricaldi, 35, a native of Peru's Junin province, who tends to more than 2,100 sheep.
The sheepherders with the H2-A visas are exempted from federal minimum wage standards because it's hard to tabulate their hours. And while housing and food are provided, federal rules don't mandate running water, toilets or electricity.
"I think it's just sort of been frozen in time. Nobody's really petitioned to have these conditions improved," said Jennifer Lee, an attorney for Colorado Legal Services.
In California, lawmakers passed a law in 2001 raising sheepherder wages after Central California Legal Services published a survey chronicling their lives. Chris Schneider, executive director of the group, said California sheepherders are supposed to be getting paid $1,422 a month but that it doesn't always happen.
Over the last decade, the U.S. Department of Labor has collected $216,443 in back wages for 133 sheepherders nationwide and fined employers $77,725.
Dennis Richins, executive director of the Western Range Association, said ranchers who amass worker complaints are kicked out of his trade group.
Lee said the CLS survey is not meant to be all encompassing, but that it does provide a needed snapshot of the industry.
To find the sheepherders, CLS workers often spent hours following footprints in the snow.
On a recent trip into Uintah County, Utah, a sheepherder on horseback trotted toward the CLS Jeep. He said his name was Gonzalo, from Peru, and has a wife and five children back home. He declined to give his last name because he didn't know if he would get in trouble with his boss.
He said he is so isolated that he passes the time by talking to his dogs and sheep.
He then reined his horse and galloped away into the field of snow, his two border collies behind him.
On the Net:
Colorado Legal Services: http://coloradolegalservices.org/co/homepage.html
American Sheep Industry Association: http://www.sheepusa.org/