Mar. 20, 2006 – Legalization is often cited as an answer to notoriously difficult labor conditions for the nationâ€™s undocumented workforce. But for many of the workers toiling in Americaâ€™s forests, possessing a valid visa does not protect them from abuse.
The forest industry provides some of the most dangerous and lowest-paying labor in the country, and thousands of Latino immigrants here on H-2B temporary worker visas are hired by contracting companies to fill them. Sometimes laboring below the minimum wage, the workers handle heavy loads and equipment, dig in rocky ground for long hours, and then sleep on cheap motel floors or even tarps in the woods on bitter-cold nights.
Those companies are paid by large timber and paper companies and the US Forest Service, inspectors for which are sometimes overseeing the work. The pineros, or pine workers, are tied to their specific employer through the H-2B program, so they cannot quit their jobs without losing their temporary legal status.
Recently, a spate of lawsuits, a complaint filed under the labor division of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), US Senate testimony and an extensive investigation by the Sacramento Bee have revealed the shocking working conditions, debt bondage and gross underpayment endured by pineros.
"Iâ€™ve represented thousands of undocumented workers and Iâ€™ve rarely seen workers as exploited as these H-2B forestry workers," said Mary Bauer, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has filed four class-action lawsuits on behalf of pineros in the Southeast.
Sometimes laboring below the minimum wage, the workers handle heavy loads and equipment, dig in rocky ground for long hours, and then sleep on cheap motel floors or even tarps in the woods on bitter-cold nights.
Workers represented in the lawsuits describe being paid as little as $2 or $3 an hour for grueling and dangerous work after fees for chainsaws, sleeping bags, transportation and other necessities are deducted from their paychecks.
"Everybody in the [forestry] industry uses H-2B workers, and everybody underpays them," alleged Bauer. "Itâ€™s incredibly arduous work. Theyâ€™re expected to plant 2,000 trees a day, they work ten-to-twelve-hour days five-to-six days a week, and they arenâ€™t paid overtime. The norm is theyâ€™re being cheated out of $300 to $400 a week."
A 9-month investigation into the pineros working conditions by the Sacramento Bee printed last fall documented how workers have lost fingers or even legs and sustained deep gashes from chainsaws. Injuries and fatalities in vehicle accidents were common as well.
Bauer told The NewStandard that because travel time is not compensated, exhausted workers "drive as fast as possible and cram as many people in as possible" to save time.
Working with herbicides and slamming shovels into rocky ground also harms workersâ€™ health, according to their lawyers, who say that sometimes employers neither report nor compensate for injuries.
"Itâ€™s as hard and dangerous work as there is in our economy," said Michael Dale, an attorney with the Northwest Workersâ€™ Justice Project, who filed a petition about pinerosâ€™ plight with the National Administrative Office of Mexico, a body that deals with labor complaints under NAFTA.
Some forestry companies regularly receive government and private contracts even after being found guilty of violating labor laws.
In order to get the H-2B visas, workers pay $1,500 or more to recruiters working on contract for the forestry industry. They often go into debt to the recruiters â€“ debt difficult to repay at the paltry wages they end up receiving.
There are 15,000 to 20,000 certified H-2B forestry workers in the United States, according to the Department of Agriculture.
The four lawsuits filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) target contractors working on private timber land in the Southeast. Another class-action lawsuit filed by the Northwest Workersâ€™ Justice Project alleges abuse and exploitation of pineros in Idaho.
Lawyers say that some pineros could be considered victims of human trafficking. A worker employed by Express Forestry alleges in the one of the Southern Poverty Law Center suits that the company forced some of them to hand over the deeds to their personal property or use other collateral in order to secure the job.
Dale, who is working on the Northwest Workersâ€™ Justice Project, echoed the complaint.
"We had workers who basically had to sign over the deeds to their property in Mexico in order to get a job," Dale said. "Then the contractor used that to keep them on the job once they realized it wasnâ€™t what they expected."
The SPLC lawsuits against the companies Express Forestry in Louisiana; Alpha Services in Mississippi; Superior Forestry Service Inc. in Arkansas, and Eller & Sons Trees in Georgia all allege violations of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. They accuse the defendants, among other offenses, of failing to pay prevailing wages as required by law, failing to pay overtime, and failing to provide workers with a full accounting of their wages.
According to advocates for the pineros, companies face stiff competition when bidding for contracts, which leads them to cut costs by charging workers high recruitment fees or cheating them out of wages.
"The defendants took full advantage of the plaintiffsâ€™ and other class membersâ€™ indigence, inability to speak or understand English, and their lack of understanding of the laws of the United States to grossly underpay them," reads the Southern Poverty Law Center complaint against Express Forestry.
H-2B forestry workers represented in the Idaho lawsuit make similar allegations. Among other things, they claim their employers crammed them into an unsafe van for a 60-hour trip to Idaho from the border and housed more than 20 men in a one-bathroom, two-bedroom shelter with no heat. They say they were charged $750 each for sharing another small house. They recounted hiking up to 16 miles a day over uneven terrain in extreme heat.
"My clients have slept in the cold of winter in the mountains, in equipment trailers or under a plastic tarp," Dale told members of a US Senate subcommittee on March 1. "Some were abandoned in the mountains without food or transportation by their employer."
Dale noted that the companies face stiff competition when bidding for contracts, which leads them to cut costs by charging workers high recruitment fees or cheating them out of wages. "A good company that actually treats workers well wonâ€™t be able to get the contracts," he commented.
According to advocates, workers have few opportunities for redress and relief. The Idaho workers filed various complaints with the US Department of Labor in 2000, and then waited for months only to receive notification that the grievance would not be considered, since it was written in Spanish. When the Department of Labor finally investigated the allegations of abuse and underpayment, one worker was awarded back wages but it was too late to substantiate the claims of others, since their season with that contractor was long over and the workers had no fixed addresses.
H-2B workers are not eligible for government-subsidized legal aid, making it difficult for pineros to find attorneys. Dale, who is based in Oregon, ended up representing the Idaho workers after they had been turned away from numerous legal aid offices.
"Despite the fact that they are here legally and paying taxes, they canâ€™t access legal aid services that their taxpayer dollars are paying for," Dale told TNS.
International Paper spokeswoman Amy Sawyer said her company relies on independent contractors, which bring their own employees with them. She said the company demands that contractors comply with the Migrant and Seasonal Worker Protection Act, but declined to comment further since litigation is pending.
A call to Plum Creek, one of the largest lumber companies, was not returned.
Larry Stein, the Atlanta lawyer representing the defendants in the SPLC suits, told TNS his clients are complying with all federal laws and accused the workers of lying about being underpaid.
"We have people claiming they were planting trees until 7 p.m. when it gets dark at 5," he said. "Theyâ€™re claiming they work a lot more hours than they do. We think theyâ€™re not credible." He also argued that companies should not be responsible for paying workers for time spent in transit, as advocates are demanding.
"Do you get paid for the time you spend driving to work?" he asked.
Dismissing claims that companies hold workers against their will by keeping their documents, Stein said, "Thatâ€™s hogwash; these people leave all the time."
But critics say that desperation drives the labor market for pineros. Currently companies recruit directly in Mexico and Guatemala for H-2B workers year after year, rather than attempting to hire US citizens or legal residents more likely to require better pay and conditions.
Advocates for the pineros asked the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests to guarantee the same access to legal aid and other protections that H-2A workers have. They also urged lawmakers to pass legislation mandating seatbelts and identification and inspection of vehicles used to transport forestry workers. Advocates also pushed for regulations ensuring that H-2B workers only be hired after the companies have legitimately tried to find US workers.
Additionally, advocates have demanded the Department of Labor hold repeat violators of labor laws accountable. The Sacramento Bee series discovered that some forestry companies regularly receive government and private contracts even after being found guilty of violating labor laws.
Heightened public scrutiny of the H-2B program comes as the Bush administration debates another potential large-scale guest-worker program â€“ a prospect that has prompted concerns among immigrant-rights advocates.
"Itâ€™s a way around the whole supply-and-demand labor market," said Bauer. "Usually, if someone doesnâ€™t like their job they can get another one. But [with H-2B], since they can only work for one employer, they canâ€™t leave, and abuse flourishes."