Colorado is one of the biggest sheep and lamb producers in the nation. But is it doing enough to prevent the abuse of its immigrant workers?
Drive around Routt National Forest and the Western Slope, and you may see more men like Conovilca-Matamoros. They tend to the sheep that will eventually be sent to a feedlot in northern Colorado, on to a slaughterhouse, and ultimately to restaurants around the country. According to the American Lamb Board, Colorado ranks third nationwide in the production of sheep and is the largest sheep-feeding state. Restaurants throughout the country have added Colorado lamb to their menus because of its reputation for quality, and Colorado restaurants specifically like it because the meat is seen as supportive of local industry. “The Denver food scene is growing up, and lamb is part of that,” says Tim Kuklinski of Larimer Square’s Rioja restaurant. “Colorado lamb is some of the best in the world.”
Most sheepherders are from Latin America, primarily Peru, Mexico, Bolivia, and Chile. Some of these men are known to pay a recruiter more than $5,000 to secure such jobs—more than double a year’s salary on Peru’s minimum wage. Immigrant sheepherders are permitted to seek employment here thanks to H-2A guest worker visas, which allow American companies to hire foreign workers for jobs they can’t fill with U.S. citizens. These workers earn only a modest income, but it’s still enough to send money home to their families.
“People in this country don’t want to do that kind of work,” says Ernie Etchart, a rancher near Montrose who employs four Peruvian sheepherders. “Whether it’s herding sheep or working with cattle on a ranch or on a farm, it’s very difficult to find people who want to do that. So this is a good option for us, and it provides them with an opportunity, too.”
The H-2A program is widely used to employ workers in the agricultural industry, and the ranching sector is exempt from some of the standard H-2A rules. The typical agricultural guest worker contract, for instance, lasts six to 10 months; sheepherder visas can be extended for up to three years. And while most H-2A workers are entitled to minimum wage, ranchers can pay their workers a pre-established salary for an unlimited amount of work. For Colorado sheepherders, that means $750 per month while being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
These workers and their advocates say the laws are outdated, inadequate, and poorly enforced. Colorado Legal Services (CLS) in Denver has documented instances of workers who have endured substandard heat or food supplies or faced verbal or even physical abuse, although the latter is rare. Law enforcement officials have intervened in some of the more egregious cases, but their reach can be limited. “All we can do is follow what’s already in the regulations,” says Olga Ruiz, state monitor advocate for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE), which tracks sheepherders’ welfare. “Until that changes, whether we feel it should be better is irrelevant. We have to go by what the law states.”