We had been on the road for hours, leaving the interstate and then digressing to smaller and smaller highways. Differing vistas of the Colorado landscape got wilder and more vacant the further north we drove. Driving through Maybell, we took a right and headed through Irish Canyon, on the road towards Rock Springs, Wyoming. Dropping down into Wyoming the sagebrush flats opened up on either side of the highway. Stretching into the distance and disappearing over the horizon, empty barren land devoid of anything but roads built by the gas companies and herds of sheep tended by imported slave labor.
With us on our journey were three Chilean men who had worked out here for anywhere from a year to three. Brought straight from their native land on work Visas, they had been promised food, clothing, shelter and a good paycheck to herd sheep on some of the roughest landscape in the west. Unfortunately for them, they did not receive adequate food, clothing, pay or medical attention. All they found was brutal winters with a constant wind that could cut to the bone and sweltering summer heat that would make a lizard pant.
We had originally expected to find the sheep camps worked by men from Peru, Chile and Ecuador, but the Colorado sheep ranchers had gone even further afield than expected to find workers to take advantage of, Nepal. Walking up to the first sheep camp trailer, my fingers ached to the bone in the cold, dry, wind as I held onto my camera. When no one answered our knock we turned to leave. Riding towards us on horseback was the first of three Nepali men that we found tending sheep in the Wyoming badlands.
Since sheep-herding is most likely the loneliest job within the continental United States, his happiness at visitors was almost overwhelming. In broken English and gestures, he showed us his home. A tiny tin trailer with a bed and wood stove that put out barely any heat. Its window was covered by cardboard and his pantry held nothing but rice, canned beans, tomato sauce, green beans, and a few spices. He kept track of the months by watching the dates change on his carton of eggs. Occasionally he could kill a sheep for food, but the only place to store the meat was in a cardboard box next to his bed. His clothes were ragged and well worn, his boots and gloves were held together by duct tape and his bedding was nothing but a thin sleeping bag and a blanket, hardly fitting clothing and bedding for a part of the country that can see wind chill factors in the negative 20s and whiteouts that can literally spring from nowhere.
The next couple of camps were in much the same shape, little tin trailers that should be condemned; mangy, ragged packs of dogs either starved for attention or cowering. Horses standing with their asses to the wind, shivering in huddled crowds, gaunt ribs showing through their thick winter coats and smiling Nepali men who were simply joyous to have someone visiting besides an angry boss yelling at them.
As we talked, the the true story of abuse and wage slavery came out. These men had signed a contract in Nepal (They are in the U.S. legally on a H2A work visa) to work eight hours a day, and when they landed in the U.S., the contracts were changed to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with no vacations, ever. Adequate shelter and food were supposed to be supplied, but our own eyes showed us the falsity of that agreement. The biggest crime, however, was the 650 dollars a month these men received as compensation for their labor. When you do the math, 650 dollars a month for 24 hour shifts, 7 days a week comes 90 cents an hour. You can get paid more in, China, an hour than that, hell you could make more money an hour flying a sign on a street corner an hour than you could herding sheep.
These workers are trapped and taken advantage of. One Nepali man who had been alone and isolated on the plains of Wyoming for three years told us, in broken English, how the last visitor he had was an uncle two years before. Then he surprised me when we asked him what changes he would like to see. Laughing and slapping his knee, he answered, “Change? Change this to 21st century, this not 21st century.”
Heading out from sheep country, I asked two of our Chilean guides if they still would have come to the U.S. if they would have known what the true work conditions would have been like. They both agreed that they never would have come, work conditions in Chile were better with higher pay and less abuse. The youngest one, Juan, looked into the distance, eyes watering and said, “I never, I never would have come.”
An interesting class difference that we came across during our trip was the differences between workers from South America and those that had been imported from Asia. The last camp we ran into actually contained two men, one from Chile and one from Peru. Their trailers were newer, the dogs and horses were less ragged and worn down. They were also paid one hundred dollars a month more, to me these differences boiled down to language, a lot of people within the U.S. know enough Spanish to ask if you are okay, but good luck finding someone who can speak enough Nepali to see if a worker’s basic human rights are being met.
Jacob Carpenter is a member of Grand Junction Alternative Media and a writer/co-conspirator of The Red Pill, a bi-monthly news zine that has been produced out of Western Colorado for the last five years. It is collectively produced and created, we welcome all writers and artist to submit pieces for publication!