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Foreign sheepherders in Utah divided on wages, working conditions

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 27 2012 8:36 p.m. MST

Farmer Chad Edgington, right, shows some of the spartan accommodations of sheepherder Reynaldo Yucra, left, at the ACE Land and Livestock sheep farm outside Morgan, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012.

Ben Brewer, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Almost every morning for the past 23 years, Toribio Yucra of Peru has risen early to check on the sheep under his care on Utah ranges.

Yucra doesn't get vacations, and he's on call 24 hours a day for a wage most Americans would say isn't worth it. But it's a life he happily chose. 

"I like working in the state of Utah because (of the) nice people and nice country," he said. "I understand working sheep. … That's the only thing I know."

Yucra lives in a small trailer provided by his employer, equipped with a few kitchen amenities and a little bit of electricity from a single solar panel. He takes in $1,000 each month, more than most foreign workers in his field, as he guides the sheep across grazing paths, treats them when they're sick and cares for their young each spring.

He speaks fondly of his job and his employer. But not all herders are happy. Others who have worked in Utah complain that their living conditions were inadequate, food was scarce and pay was poor.

Some fled from the employers who paid to bring them to the U.S., while others are now making a legal complaint to the U.S. Department of Labor, petitioning for better working conditions for future herders coming from Latin America to work on Utah's isolated ranges.

Workers' complaints

Most migrant sheepherders come from Peru or Chile, contracting to work long, lonely hours in harsh conditions for a minimum of $750 a month, most of which is sent home to their families in South America.

They are specialized in their field; most have tended sheep all their lives.

Curt Stewart, spokesman for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said the monthly rate for sheepherders hasn't changed in "a long time."

The program has sparked debate about living conditions, treatment of workers and compensation, drawing rave reviews from some H-2A visa holders — temporary agricultural work visas — and criticism from others.

Some employers have complained that after paying to bring workers to the U.S., the men abandon their posts after only a few months to seek more gainful employment in other industries, such as the oil fields. Others take pride in seeing workers return to their ranch for several contracts.

Alex McBean, a lawyer with Utah Legal Services, has taken on a handful of cases for migrant sheepherders in the state. He is currently building a case asking the Department of Labor to allow a public comment period concerning regulations for housing and employing the foreign workers, specifically sheepherders.

McBean said he hopes public discussion is the first step toward better conditions and better pay.

A father and son from Peru are lending their testimonies to Utah Legal Services' case. Yon Palomino spent several successful years herding sheep in Utah, learning English, meeting his wife and securing American citizenship.

Palomino said his living conditions were good, food was plentiful and his employer was timely with his paycheck.

As he encountered acquaintances from his home village in Peru working on other ranches, he discovered that other herders weren't as fortunate. 

The Peruvians complained about poor living conditions, insufficient clothing and bad food, all of which is supposed to be provided by the employer. Some ranchers were said to have taken passports from their foreign employees, threatening to call immigration officials at the slightest misstep, Palomino said.

"(The living conditions) are horrible," he said. "The way they live is not right."

Yon's father, Zacarias Mendoza, was one of the Peruvian herders who found himself facing unsatisfactory working conditions and pay. Nevertheless, it's the life he prefers.

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