Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Living in the 21st Century, Working in the 19th
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Imagine workers who must be at their job site 24 hours a day, alone and on constant call. Whose crumbling living quarters at the sites lack electricity, running water and bathrooms. And whose pay is no more than $1,200 a month.

No, this is not a historical column about the working and living conditions endured by workers in previous centuries. This is about the conditions being imposed in the 21st century on workers whose U.S. employers argue, in the best 19th century manner, that they just cannot afford to treat them better and that the workers are in any case satisfied.

The workers are sheepherders, who perform that ancient and vital task for some 67,000 ranchers across the country. Few, if any, workers have been more exploited. Yet almost nothing has been done to try to improve their conditions.

A private service agency in California, whose sheep industry is the country's second largest, did manage to get the state's Industrial Welfare Commission to order some modest improvements four years ago. Pay was to be raised from $750 to $1,200 a month, heaters and toilets put in all living quarters, and drinking water provided, as well as regular mail service, transportation to the nearest town and access to a radio or telephone for emergencies.

But a recent survey by the agency -- Central California Legal Services -- showed that employers have largely failed to make even those minimal improvements and have in turn been largely ignored by the government officials charged with enforcing the commission's order.

Like most sheepherders throughout the country, those in California are mainly temporary immigrants working under a federal program that allows ranchers to sign them to three-year contracts if the ranchers can show they have tried and failed to recruit domestic workers for the jobs. There are hardly any other requirements. Ranchers are not even required to pay the legal minimum wage.

Not surprisingly, very few U.S. workers are interested in the jobs, given what the ranchers offer. But minuscule as it is, the pay is much more than the immigrants can make in their home countries. To those desperately poor workers, it's enough to make up for the miserable working and living conditions.

Typical of California's immigrant sheepherders is Miguel, a Peruvian who, the Associated Press' Juliana Barbassa reported, "lives in a 6-by-12-foot plywood trailer with no running water, no indoor toilet and no air conditioning. A car battery powers a 5-inch black and white television. He bathes in an outdoor tub using water from a 50-gallon barrel and uses a shovel to bury his waste .... He sends most of what he earns to his wife and two daughters, whom he sees every three years."

"It's a hard life," said Miguel, who didn't want to use his full name for fear of losing his work visa. "But what can I do about it? At home, I had no future."

Another Peruvian, 42-year-old David Quispealaya, complained that he is "a prisoner without visitors, without a family." He nevertheless remains on the job because the pay is three times what he could make at home. He said he needs the money to support his wife and eight children in Peru, a main source of the state's 300 or so sheepherders, along with Chile and Mongolia.

Sheep ranchers complain that providing better conditions and pay will expose them to even greater competitive pressures from Australia, New Zealand and other countries with large sheep industries that have been undercutting them, from China and others that are just entering the wool market and from the manufacturers of synthetic fibers everywhere.

They also worry that it will lead to better pay and conditions for sheepherders in states that compete with California's wool growers, primarily Arizona, Wyoming and Colorado, where compensation is even worse than in California.

Dennis Richins, a prominent Utah rancher, said there's no reason to treat workers differently because most of them "are clamoring to come back." They, of course, have little choice but to accept whatever is offered them. Those who seek more, rancher Ramon Echeveste told California's Industrial Welfare Commission, are "good for nothing" workers -- "boys," he called them -- who've come to the United States to stir up trouble.

Such arguments should sound familiar to students of history. That's pretty much how employers responded in past centuries to workers who dared demand decent pay and working conditions. But this is the 21st century, is it not?

Copyright 2005 Dick Meister