A Step in the Wrong Direction: Proposed Legislation in Idaho Targets Vulnerable Sheepherders
Should quitting your job make you a criminal? The Idaho Wool Growers Association has proposed legislation that would do just that. Association director Stan Boyd says that H-2A sheepherders who abandon their jobs should face a fine of $1000, a year in jail, or both. When asked if any other Idaho job description made quitting a misdemeanor, Boyd said he wasn’t aware of any.
In reality, the proposed Idaho law would only make a shameful situation worse. The federal H-2A visa program allows foreign farmworkers to work in the United States when U.S. workers aren’t available. Unlike the vast majority of workers in the United States, range sheepherders don’t have the right to receive the federal minimum wage. Ranchers may pay sheepherders as little as $750 per month to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sheepherders live and work in remote, isolated areas, leaving them vulnerable to wage theft, deplorable housing conditions, and even human trafficking.
Nonetheless, mistreated H-2A workers already face tremendous pressures not to quit their jobs. Workers who abandon their contracts lose their right to be in the country legally. And like all H-2A workers, herders aren’t allowed to change employers—their only remedy is to put up with the mistreatment or go home. By turning workers into criminals, the proposed law would only discourage these already vulnerable sheepherders from escaping or reporting these abusive conditions.
Farmworker Justice currently represents three H-2A sheepherders from Chile who suffered wage theft and labor trafficking abuses while working for a rancher in eastern Washington State. More information about H-2A sheepherder exploitation is available in “No Way to Treat a Guest”, FJ’s report about the H-2A program, and from Colorado Legal Services’ Sheepherders Project.