[Stop-traffic] News/US: Worker abuse case expands

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Subject: [Stop-traffic] News/US: Worker abuse case expands
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Tue Nov 14 2000 - 10:34:38 EST


Worker abuse case expands
Immigration agents join probe at ranch
By Deborah Frazier
The Denver Rocky Mountain News, December 1, 2000

Immigration officials have joined an FBI and Labor Department investigation
into allegations that Peruvian and Mexican sheepherders were abused at the
Peroulis & Sons ranch in northwestern Colorado.

Criminal charges could result, federal officials confirmed Thursday.

The investigation is into allegations of physically abusing workers,
denying them food and water, charging for work tools, seizing passports and
illegal withholding wages. Herders have complained about the abuses for 10
years, officials said.

"Worker-exploitation cases are a pretty high priority with us," said Joseph
Greene, regional director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The Labor Department is only authorized to assess civil penalties in worker
abuse cases, so the FBI and INS involvements add the teeth of criminal
charges, should the worker complaints turn out to be valid.

"I want to get off the notion that people can get away with worker
exploitation," Greene said. "They can't get away with it."

The Labor Department runs the foreign agricultural worker program, known as
H-2A, which provides foreign workers when no U.S. citizen wants a job. For
10 years the agency has helped the Peroulises obtain foreign sheepherders
legally for use on their more than 40,000 acres of deeded and leased
ranchland near Craig.

Peroulis has declined to comment. His attorney, Jeff Pagliuca, likened the
allegations to "what's left on the range once the sheep leave."

The H-2A program doesn't allow the Labor Department to pursue criminal
charges for violations of work, housing and pay rules. This became an issue
in June after a Peruvian worker reported suffering serious head and neck
injuries.

In September, the Labor Department filed a civil complaint against the
Peroulises and sought a court order to bar the family from obtaining workers.

On Sept. 25, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Matsch ordered both sides to
come up with a compliance plan, but he did not rule on the injunction
request, Labor Department officials in Washington, D.C., said.

On Sept. 7 and 8, a multiagency team with a search warrant went onto the
Peroulis ranch, interviewed herders and videotaped living quarters. The
team included FBI agents and other federal agents as well as state
investigators.

Carlos M. Velasco, the Peruvian consul general in Denver, also talked to
the sheepherders. He said they reported being hit, kicked, spat on, given
only rotten meat to eat and having no suitable drinking water and no toilets.

"The Department of Labor makes every effort to assure that the workers'
rights are protected," the agency's attorneys said in response to questions
by the Denver Rocky Mountain News. The lawyers declined specific comment on
the Peroulis case.

About 602 Colorado ranchers applied for H2-A herders and ranch hands this
year, said John Bartlett, regional certification officer for the Labor
Department.

Ranchers can request as many workers as they wish, Bartlett said. The
Department of Labor doesn't keep track of how many herders, ranch hands and
other workers are in Colorado because the INS issues the visas.

Bartlett said the Peroulis case was unusual, in part, because of herders'
difficulty getting to a phone, reaching a Spanish-speaking agent and coping
with a complaint system so difficult that "a normal human being would go
crazy trying to get through."

The Peroulis case has been troubling to other Craig-area cattle and sheep
ranchers, including Tom Kourliss, former state agriculture commissioner.

"If we don't have this program, our ranching operations would become
nonexistant," said Kourliss, whose family has ranched near Craig for 70
years and has used the H-2A program. "We've had people come back for 20
years."

Melanie Orhant
Stop-Traffic Moderator

Please contact me off-list for any questions about Stop-Traffic at
<<morhant@igc.org>>.

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