A Peruvian shepherd working in the U.S. on a seasonal worker visa has sued a ranching trade group in federal court, accusing the organization of violating antitrust laws to fix wages far below the U.S. minimum wage, and locking many workers in a situation amounting to “permanent indentured servitude.”
The lawsuit was filed in Nevada federal court by Cirilo Ucharima Alvarado, who is looking to form a class of potentially thousands of shepherds. The suit claims that the member ranches of the Western Range Association (WRA), which dominates the U.S. sheep ranching industry, secretly agreed to set wages for shepherds at extremely low rates, while also agreeing not to hire from each other member’s ranches, locking the shepherds into a system similar to indentured servitude and violating the federal Sherman Antitrust Act.
Herders apply to jobs through the WRA, rather than directly with ranches. The WRA then assigns the workers to ranches, which the lawsuit alleges leaves no room for the workers to negotiate or shop around among ranches for better wages or conditions. This allows the WRA to keep wages at or close to the bare minimum required for the H-2A guest worker visa program, and artificially low compared to other agricultural labor, for which wages have risen in recent years even as shepherding wages have stagnated. This deters U.S. workers from the field, allowing the ranches to rely on particularly vulnerable migrant workers such as Ucharima Alvarado.
The complaint also alleges that Ucharima Alvarado’s employers forced him to sleep outdoors on several occasions, gave him expired food to eat, and refused him adequate medical care. His employer confiscated his passport and visa, which if true, is potentially a violation of a separate federal law.
Unfortunately, these conditions are not unheard of for H-2A migrant workers in agricultural industries. The H-2A program allows agricultural employers, such as WRA member ranches, to hire foreign guest workers on temporary visas to fill seasonal jobs. These migrant workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation, with numerous documented cases of debt-peonage, human trafficking, and forced labor in the H-2A system.
Over 256,000 H-2A workers were hired in 2019, and there are more than 100,000 sheep farms in the U.S., according to the Department of Agriculture.