Sheepherders at Center of Fight

Listen Now
7min 19sec

Over the past two years, three Peruvian sheepherders have flagged down cars on rural roads near Craig, in northwestern Colorado. The claimed to be escaping abusive working conditions on the Peroulis and Sons’ ranch. Rossana Jeri took them in after they fled.

ROSSANA JERI: "I buy a calling card, because they don’t talk to their families for months, for years. They say, 'oh yeah, I’m here.' And they start crying, and crying. I never see a man cry so much."

The federal government is now investigating possible human trafficking violations at the ranch. But unlike many stories about exploited farm workers, these men weren’t here illegally. They’re among 130 or so herders working the Colorado range on temporary visas. The sheep industry says exploitation is rare and not tolerated. But advocates argue the system itself leaves herders vulnerable to abuse. Colorado Public Radio’s Megan Verlee reports.

Here's a transcript of Verlee's report:

REPORTER MEGAN VERLEE: Hotchkiss Ranch owner Kip Farmer navigates rocky roads across the mountains south east of Grand Junction. Farmer has 8,000 sheep pastured on these steep slopes and to care for them he employs around a dozen herders, brought in from Peru. Farmer says he has to look outside the U.S. to find people willing to do this work.

BRIAN "KIP" FARMER: "It’s seven days a week, 24 hours a day, is what their job description is. And all the locals really wouldn’t want to put that kind of time and be tied down every day that many hours a day doing a job up away from their family and friends."

REPORTER: The living conditions might also give many Americans pause. At the end of a rough dirt track we arrive at one of Farmer’s sheep camps. An old trailer sits in a clearing, surrounded by the soft sounds of the flock. The trailer doesn't have water or electricity but Farmer says it has what it needs: a bed, stove, heater, even a few modern amenities.

FARMER: "It has solar panel attached to the back of it. He can have lights and charge his cel phone. And they have their VCRs and TVs that are run off batteries too."

REPORTER: Herders have to buy those entertainments themselves, but Farmer provides the trailer, food, and fuel, and pays them at least $750 a month, all required by the terms of the temporary visas. He says the work isn’t easy but his employees make a lot more here than they would at home. He shows off a stack of envelopes in the center console of his truck; today is payday.

FARMER: "When I get back to town today, I’ll probably send four or five different Western Unions back to Peru. We have some guys who have bank accounts and we’ll put their money into savings and stuff. But the ones who have families generally usually send $400 or $500 of it home every month"

REPORTER: Farmer says he wants to keep his workers happy, so they’ll renew their contracts and he won’t have to train new ones. But immigration rights groups argue the reality on many ranches is quite different. They say some ranchers mistreat their workers: denying them medical care, taking improper deductions from their paychecks, and generally making an already difficult job even more lonely and isolating than it has to be. Colorado Mesa University professor Thomas Acker has spent years documenting sheepherder conditions with the help of former herder Ignacio Alvarado. Sitting in a park in the small town of Paonia, Alvarado says many herders complain of abuse from their employers. Acker translates.

IGNACIO ALVARADO: En vez de tratan nos bien, nos gritan y nos reganan en cada momento. Y que no nos permiten siquiera de que hablemos de telefono o que alguien nos visite. Entonces es un cambio muy servero para la persona."

THOMAS ACKER: "Instead of treating us well they scream at us, they chew us out."
ALVARADO: (Speaking Spanish)
ACKER: "And they won't even allow us to speak by telephone, or to have somebody visit us"
ALVARADO: (Spanish)
ACKER: "That's really severe for a person."

REPORTER: Acker and Alvarado say the problem isn’t just that some ranchers flout the law. They say the law itself should require better conditions. Acker describes visiting decrepit old trailers that have passed state inspection.

ACKER: "The regulatory agencies are not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, as I see it. If their function is to identify what are appropriate living accommodations we need to improve the criteria that will satisfy that requirement."

DENNIS RICHINS of the Western Range Association: "If it wasn't working so good and the herders didn't enjoy it, why are they coming back on a second contract?"

REPORTER: Dennis Richins heads the Western Range Association. His group manages the visa process for many of the state’s ranchers and herders.

RICHINS: "I would say 85, 90 percent or more want to come back on a second contract."

REPORTER: Western Range also handles herder complaints and Richins says they take those concerns very seriously. The first step is to call the rancher and ask them to fix the problem.

RICHINS: "And if we get the second complaint we'll go to the ranch and visit them and visit the herders and interview them. And if that continues, we'll kick them out of the association. We will not tolerate it."

REPORTER: Western Range did kick out the Peroulis and Sons ranch, which is being sued by three of its former herders. But those men had to literally run away just to file their claims. If a rancher doesn’t let his workers have cellphones, it can be almost impossible for them to contact the outside world. Colorado’s Department of Labor is charged with monitoring farm worker welfare, but the department’s Olga Ruiz says that’s not easy when it comes to herders. Her office only has six outreach workers for the entire state and a lot of other duties.

OLGA RUIZ, Colorado Department of Labor: “Because of the sheepherder being in remote locations more than likely they will not go out to the sheep camps. They aren’t easily found.”

REPORTER: “So if I were a sheep herder, it sounds like I might not often see a Department of Labor employee.”

RUIZ: “That is correct.”

(Sound of truck driving)

ACKER: "We’re going to go up into the... vamos a Bosque Nacional?"


ACKER: “Yeah, we’re going to go up into the national forest."

REPORTER: While the state says it doesn’t have the resources to seek out sheepherders, others have taken up the task. Thomas Acker, the Mesa University professor, and Ignacio Alvarado, the immigration advocate, spend a lot of time on dirt roads in Western Colorado, looking for herders.

(sound of truck door slamming)

ALVARADO: "Como estas tu salud?"

WORKER: "Bien, bien."

REPORTER: On this afternoon, they run into a man they've met before, at work in a field. They hail him over to the truck and offer him a cold soda and a bit of conversation. The worker doesn't want to give his name – he's scared his employer will be angry if he talks to a reporter – but he does want Acker and Alvarado's help.

WORKER: "... porque no tengo seguro, no tengo nada."

ACKER: "He’s been working here for years and years and he doesn’t have any sort of retirement fund set up, so he wanted to see how he can get that straightened out."

VERLEE: The man is worried because he doesn’t have a social security card. Ranchers are required to help their herders get those, under the terms of the visa program. But Acker says that often doesn't happen. Asked about his life on the range, the man says the rancher he works for is reluctant to take him to the doctor when he’s sick or to listen to his concerns.

WORKER: "Nosotros le ayudamos el, y el que nos ayudara."

REPORTER: 'We help our employer,' the worker says, 'so he should take care of us if we get sick or if we have other problems.' 'Life is hard in the United States,' he says. But for a decade he’s applied for visa after visa to come back for one reason.

WORKER: "...Por mis familia, por mis hijos."

REPORTER: 'His family and his children.' As hard as his life is here, this herder believes he’s providing a better one for loved ones at home. For the ranching industry, it’s proof that the system is working, and both sides are benefiting. But for those trying to improve conditions for herders, the question remains. How much should workers here have to endure, in the pursuit of money to send home?

Megan Verlee, Colorado Public Radio News

[CPR Photos/Megan Verlee]