SHEEPHERDERS NEED HELP
By Dick Meister
Imagine workers who must be at their job site 24 hours a day, alone and
on constant call. Whose crumbling living quarters at the sites lack
electricity, running water and bathrooms. And whose pay is a pitiful $650 to
$900 a month.
No, this is not a historical column about the working and living
conditions endured by workers in previous centuries. This is about the
conditions being imposed in the 21st century on workers whose U.S. employers
argue, in the best 19th century manner, that they just cannot afford to
treat them better and that the workers are in any case satisfied.
The workers are sheepherders, who perform that ancient and vital task
for some 67,000 ranchers across the country. Few, if any, workers have been
more exploited. Yet almost nothing has been done to try to improve their
conditions. But finally, there's some movement in that direction, led by a
private service agency in California, whose sheep industry is the nation's
Like most sheepherders throughout the country, those in California are
mainly temporary immigrants working under a federal program that allows
ranchers to sign them to three-year contracts if the ranchers can show they
have tried and failed to recruit domestic workers for the jobs. There are
hardly any other requirements. Ranchers are not even required to pay the
legal minimum wage.
Not surprisingly, very few U.S. workers are interested in the jobs,
given what the ranchers offer. But minuscule as it is, the pay is much more
than the immigrants can make in their home countries. To those desperately
poor workers, it's enough to make up for the miserable working and living
Typical of California's immigrant sheepherders is 42-year-old David
Quispealaya, who complained to an Associated Press reporter that he is "a
prisoner without visitors, without a family." He nevertheless remains on
the job because the pay is three times what he could make at home. He needs
the money to support his wife and eight children in Peru.
Peru is a main source of the state's 300 or so sheepherders, along with
Chile and Mongolia.
Among the Chileans is 37-year-old Vincente Quilodran. Like virtually all
the other sheepherders, he lives in a dilapidated mobile trailer, 7 by 13
"The linoleum is worn to plywood," said the AP's Brian Melley in
describing Quilodran's quarters. "His mattress has a permanent droop and
the plastic upholstery has been peeled from seat cushions at his table to
reveal brown foam full of divots. Flimsy cabinets are painted silver and
holes are patched with duct tape."
There was, of course, no running water, toilet or electricity.
During the summer, some of the sheepherders don't even have trailers
for shelter. They live in tents.
The attempts to improve the California workers lot were launched by
Central California Legal Services. Its director, Chris Schneider, urged the
state's Industrial Welfare Commission, which sets the pay rate and other
conditions for the immigrant workers, to raise their pay of $750 a month to
more than $2,000 and order significant improvements in their housing
The commission, however, would do no more than agree to increase monthly
pay -- to $1,050 this month and to $1,200 in July of next year.
Even that extremely modest and obviously inadequate action riled sheep
ranchers. They complained it will expose them to even greater competitive
pressures from Australia, New Zealand and other countries with large sheep
industries that have been undercutting them.
They also worry that it will lead to better pay and conditions in other
states, where compensation is even worse than in California. Sheepherders
in Arizona, for instance, are paid a mere $650 a month.
"I hope everybody is not as crazy as California," declared Dennis
Richins, a Utah rancher who heads the sheep ranchers' Western Range
There's no reason to treat workers differently, he said, since most of
them "are clamoring to come back." They, of course, currently have little
choice but to accept whatever is offered them. Those who seek more,
rancher Ramon Echeveate told the Industrial Welfare Commission, are "good
for nothing" workers -- "boys," he called them -- who've come to the United
States to stir up trouble.
Such arguments should sound familiar to students of history. For
that's pretty much how employers responded in past centuries to workers who
dared demand decent pay and working conditions.
The struggle to overturn the employers' reactionary ways is not over. Those
demanding better treatment for California's sheepherders promise to press
their demands on the State Legislature and to make theirs a national
campaign in behalf of some of the most exploited workers in American
Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco, is co-author of "A
Long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America's Farm Workers"
(Macmillan). Copyright 2001 Dick Meister.