Exploited sheepherders win pay raise in court — but their struggle isn’t over yet


More than 1,600 sheepherders in nine western states will receive substantial raises this month thanks to a small group of Western Slope activists who spent nearly a decade documenting worker abuses and pushing for more humane treatment of the foreign workers.

The change came after the Grand Junction and Montrose-based Hispanic Affairs Project filed suit in federal court against the Department of Labor alleging that agency was not properly regulating the sheepherding industry even though herders come into the country with H2A visas that allow them to work legally.

The Department of Labor responded this week with new regulations that will raise herders salaries on Nov. 16 from $750 a month to $993 a month. On Dec. 15, the minimum salary for herders will jump again to $1,206.

“We are slowly spreading the word about this to the workers and the workers are so happy,” said Ricardo Perez, executive director of the Hispanic Affairs Project. “This is a huge change for them. They are living under poverty and this, in some way, will help keep them out of poverty.”

Foreign sheepherders often work around-the-clock in difficult and isolated conditions for a salary that amounts to $2 to $3 per hour. The Hispanic Affairs Project found in nine years of visiting and interviewing herders that some also suffer abuse at the hands of their rancher bosses.

The Project turned its attention to the plight of the herders and began cataloging herder problems after a seriously ill sheepherder was hospitalized in Grand Junction because he had not received proper medical care through his employers. The herder was returned to Mexico and died several days later.

The Project documented the stories of herders who were sent into the mountains for weeks at a time without enough food, water or warm clothing. Some were fired after they suffered injuries.

According to the Project interviews, some ranchers took the herders passports and held the workers in virtual slavery: They were not able to return to their home countries. Most of the herders had worked for decades with no raises. Nearly half the herders interviewed had not been allowed to read their H2A employment contracts.

Perez said gathering information from the herders was tricky because some of their bosses didn’t want them speaking to anyone. Many were not allowed to leave the ranches where they worked or the remote areas where they tended sheep herds. Finding their remote camps was tough for the Project volunteers, which numbered about 15 people over the course of nine years.

The Hispanic Affairs Project had the support of churches and also of the group, Towards Justice.  Attorneys for Towards Justice filed the suit that alleged the Department of Labor failed to follow its own regulations that require it to act annually on calculating wage floors for various industries. The suit requested that the court block the importation of any more sheepherders through the farm-worker H2A program until the low wages were reviewed and increased.

Nina DiSalvo, executive director of Towards Justice, called the sheepherder wages “despicably low.”

The pay raise for the workers represents an unexpectedly quick victory following the suit filed by those pushing for reform. But Perez said there is much more to be done.

The Hispanic Affairs Project will continue to push for better treatment of the workers, including shorter hours, more time off, improved living conditions and proper supplies.

“We look forward to future gains in justice for these long-oppressed visitors to our country,” said Tom Acker, a Project board member who has been instrumental in cataloging the abuses for years.


Photo credit: Jeff Foster, Creative Commons, Flickr