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?
In March 2009, Alfredo Conovilca-Matamoros left his native Peru for a promising job as a sheepherder in western Colorado. Peru has an established sheep industry, and his new employer, like many American ranchers, was seeking workers with the esoteric know-how so crucial to herding and caring for sheep.
Conovilca-Matamoros came to the United States expecting to work hard and earn his keep. Unfortunately, he soon found that his arrangement wasn’t what he’d anticipated: Upon arrival, his employer confiscated his identification papers and told him that he wouldn’t need them because he wasn’t going anywhere. Conovilca-Matamoros was assigned nonsheepherding tasks such as cutting and baling hay, a violation of his employment visa. And even though these visas also stipulate that sheepherders be given ample food, he says he was constantly underfed.
Working remotely with no access to transportation and speaking little English, he felt trapped. “I knew it was going to be rough, but they never told me that they weren’t going to give me enough food, that they weren’t going to pay me, that they weren’t going to give me access to a phone, to a doctor,” Conovilca-Matamoros said last summer through an interpreter. “They never told me they were going to treat me like an animal.”