The Price of Urbanization

by | Dec 28, 2003

The sheepherder here hasn’t had a single day off in the past six months. Photo by Alvaro Martín Bedoya.

When I first met Antidio Román, a 26-year-old Peruvian shepherd, he had been living in a tent for more than five months. Though he was only three miles from the nearest village, Antidio hadn’t had a single day off from work in the past two years. Instead of providing him a bathroom, his boss, a prominent local landowner, had given him a shovel with which to bury his excrement. The day I found him, Antidio was eating the remains of an old, sick ewe that he had slaughtered six days ago. Having no means to refrigerate the meat, Antidio kept it in a red burlap sack under his cot. “This way the dogs can’t get to it,” Antidio explained.

Antidio’s story sounds like the sad but familiar experience of an abused worker in the Third World. Unfortunately, I did not find Antidio in the pastures of Cusco, or anywhere near the Andes; Antidio Román worked for Derek Gibbins, a wealthy Nevada rancher, and his tent was a stone’s throw away from Interstate 395, three miles north of the bustling, all-American town of Bridgeport, California.

More than 3,000 Peruvian shepherds are currently employed by American ranchers. Spread throughout California, Colorado, Nevada, Wyoming, and a handful of other western states, these workers are brought in on three-year contracts through the U. S. Department of Labor’s H-2A agricultural guestworker program. While the wages these individuals earn provide precious income to their home communities in Juní­n, Pasco, and Lima, the conditions they are submitted to—in terms of housing, health services, and employer abuse—put a high price on their families’ prosperity.

Sheepherders’ living conditions have barely advanced since the 18th century. Most sheepherders are housed year-round in dilapidated huts, cramped old trailers or even tents. In a recent study of herders in central California, not a single worker surveyed had access to a phone, less than 5% were supplied with a toilet, and even fewer had access to running water. Salaries ranged from $650 to $800 a month, or, in other words, approximately $1 an hour, given that workers are required to be on site twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. This backbreaking labor literally never ends: of the 41 workers in the survey, 90% were not given a single day off in the entire previous working year.

Ranchers justify low wages by claiming that workers receive free room and board. “Room” can consist of nothing more than a cloth tent and “board” almost unanimously consists of old lamb meat and canned vegetables. Many sheepherders are not provided a means to preserve their meat; hence, herders like Antidio Román are forced to finish their seven-day allotment of meat in three or four days, before the flesh spoils. “It’s particularly hard in the summer” one herder commented, “Nothing keeps in the humidity.”

Neither law enforcement authorities nor the Department of Labor has made any systematic effort to help; the Western Range Association (WRA), the sheep industry’s powerful lobbying group, has spent millions of dollars to ensure that the law is on the ranchers’ side. Its efforts have been successful: current labor regulations are riddled with special exceptions that effectively eliminate herders’ legal protections and privileges. It is legal to house a herder in a tent. It is legal to give him a shovel instead of a bathroom. It is legal to pay him two dollars an hour and force him to work continuously, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This summer, armed with a notebook, a camera and an absurdly powerful pickup truck, I set out to study the working conditions of these Peruvian pastoralists. For two whirlwind months, I logged thousands of miles on dirt roads and mountain paths, looking for the furry flock or telltale plume of dust that always trails a herder. In a full day of driving, I was lucky to encounter two or three workers; at this rate, I located and interviewed 35 sheepherders—the second largest survey of its kind. This on-site research was complemented by interviews with industry representatives, labor advocates and government officials.

Conditions were substandard at best and abysmal at worst. Not a single sheepherder interviewed had access to a bathroom; every one—regardless of the accessibility of his work site to roads—was simply given a shovel with which to bury his excrement. Many workers lacked access to potable water. While eight herders were provided with airtight tanks containing presumably potable water, many more drank out of reusable plastic containers or rusting metal barrels, and a sizable minority regularly drank from streams, lakes, or the nearest natural water source.

Almost all lacked access to regular or even emergency medical care, and there are reliable reports of deaths due to minor ailments or accidents—such as snakebites, choking, or exposure to sub-freezing temperatures—that a prompt visit to the emergency room could resolved. Most ranchers visit their herders once every two to three days; one herder almost cried when he met me, explaining that he hadn’t seen anyone other than his employer for over four months. Incidents that merely injure or inconvenience average Americans can easily kill a herder.

Sheepherders are kept from complaining about their problems through a complex combination of neglect, coercion, and physical abuse. Under the terms of the H-2A contract, sheepherders are only authorized to work for the rancher that sponsored their entry; employers often use their unique relationship with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to threaten workers who may want to leave their jobs. One former worker spoke of a particularly tragic episode: his employer ignored his repeated requests to see a doctor and abandoned him at a local hotel once he could no longer work; two days later, due to the employer’s information, the INS arrested the herder for being “out of status.”

Given the lack of public awareness and the sheer power of the interest groups involved, it is unlikely that the shepherds will soon escape their suffering. It is my hope that my research, once completed, will begin to bridge this knowledge gap, and bring us closer to the day when workers like Antidio get the pay, housing and employer treatment that they deserve.

Winter 2003Volume II, Number 2
Alvaro Bedoya ’03 first became interested in Peruvian shepherds while working with migrant farmworkers in rural Florida and central Mexico. His current research was funded by the Harvard University Committee on Human Rights Studies and a Patricia King Fellowship from Harvard Phi Beta Kappa; his findings will be presented as a senior honors thesis this spring. Bedoya plans on entering law school next fall, and hopes to pursue a career in international labor law.

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