Mistreatment of H-2B immigrant guest forestry workers

In late 2005 the Sacrament Bee published the best expose of occupational dangers for immigrant Hispanic labor in some time. The focus: works who despite the supposed protections of so-called H-2B forest guest worker program for agriculture were exploited in the common fashion: exposed to job risks for which they were unprepared, cheating on payroll, and generally deficient working conditions. Some 10,000 works have come to the U.S. to “plant trees across the nation and thin fire-prone woods out West as part of the Bush administration’s Healthy Forests Initiative.” The Bee reports: “A nine-month Bee investigation based on more than 150 interviews across Mexico, Guatemala and the United States and 5,000 pages of records unearthed through the Freedom of Information Act has found pineros are victims of employer exploitation, government neglect and a contracting system that insulates landowners – including the U.S. government – from responsibility.”
Confined Space has summarized the Bee’s articles. In this posting and future ones, I will excerpt extensively from it, starting with….

…in the backwoods, where pineros often lack adequate training, protective gear or medical supplies, where they sweat, struggle and suffer, the current forest guest worker program casts a shadow across its future…..Across Honduras and Guatemala, 14 guest workers lay in tombs, victims of the worst non-fire-related workplace accident in the history of U.S. forests.

Over the past decade, forest contractors certified by the U.S. Department of Labor to hire foreign guest workers have shorted them out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in wages and violated scores of state and federal laws. Some employers have taken workers’ visas and personal papers, including deeds to cars and even a home – in effect, holding them hostage to hard labor.

The H2B forest workers toil in a regulatory void. Rules that protect H2A farmworkers – such as requirements for free housing and access to federal legal services – don’t extend to forest guest workers.

In national forests, where the contractors are paid with tax dollars, federal officials overseeing the work witness the mistreatment and wretched working conditions. But they don’t intervene. Responsibility for workers, they say, rests with the Department of Labor and the forest contractors themselves.

And, where government oversight of contractors exists, it’s often inconsistent. Companies cited by one branch of the Labor Department for abusing forest guest workers are regularly certified by another branch to recruit and hire more.

This fall, 17 guest workers slashed through dense stands of pine and fir in Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest for a contractor with a history of labor violations: Universal Forestry of Orofino, Idaho.