“We felt like we were imprisoned, held captive. What else did he need, a whip?” —Vincente Vera Martínez, migrant forestry worker, from the Sacramento Bee series, “The Pineros”
In the popular imagination, America’s forests serve as a sanctuary of nature, sheltered from the tumult of society. But those pristine landscapes are riven with the sweat of invisible labor. A recent multi-million-dollar legal settlement has shed light on a hidden underclass that toils under the legal shade of a federal guestworker program known as H2B.
The lawsuit against Superior Forestry Services was brought on behalf of 2,200 guestworkers, who were recruited from Mexico and Central America to plant pine trees in the Southeast — a grueling job run by managers who treated the guestworkers as a disposable resource.
The groups leading the litigation, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Farmworker Justice, and the Legal Aid Justice Center, have campaigned to hold both employers and the government accountable for the systematic degradation of this technically legal yet criminally neglected migrant workforce.
Superior Forestry Services has finally agreed to cough up $2.75 million to address unpaid wages and pledge compliance with the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and Fair Labor Standards Act.
The settlement award is unprecedented, but back wages don’t begin to cover the cost H2B workers have suffered for a spot at the bottom of the workforce. The H2B program, which has expanded dramatically since the mid-1990s, is akin to the H2A visa system for farmworkers (also notoriously exploitative but now slated for reform). However, H2B covers low-paying non-farm sectors ranging from seafood processing to housekeeping services. H2B workers also lack some of the crucial safeguards afforded to farm guestworkers, such as guaranteed minimum work and wage protections.
A 2005 investigation by the Sacramento Bee by Tom Knudson described the struggle of Latino guestworkers known as Pineros (“Men of the Pines”) to navigate a labor structure premised on exploitation:
…Alvarez strapped a bulging sack of seedlings to his hips and trudged across a gray, crumbly slope just below the snow line. Every few feet, he would stop, lift a silver-gray digging tool called a “hoedad” high into the air and slam it to the ground. Stooping over, he would take a seedling from his bag, plant it, tamp the dirt and move on.
Lift, slam, stoop, plant. Alvarez worked his way through puddles of shade and sun. Lift, slam, stoop, plant. A metallic clinking filled the air — the sound of hoedads striking rocks. Thirsty, Alvarez bent down and sipped from a snowmelt creek. The work was tough. But a Forest Service inspector watching the crew was making it tougher.
“She would just start yelling at us,” Alvarez recounted during an interview in his home near Fresno. “Sometimes we’d pull a tree out of our bag—and accidentally drop one—and she would start yelling at us.”
The presence, and the complicity, of the Forest Service agent in this scene betrayed the collusion between government and industry. Despite occupational safety regulations on the books, many guestworkers were exposed to the most hostile elements of both the environment and human nature:
Most wore no eye or face protection, no earplugs. Several struggled for solid footing in the cheap boots they brought with them from Mexico. On slopes steep enough for skiing, they slipped. They slid. They stumbled.
“This company is not taking safety equipment seriously,” said Gustavo Ferman Domínguez, one of the workers. “We have to buy our own gloves. They don’t give us goggles for the chain saws. They don’t give us boots.”
Employers might whittle down paychecks by skimming off deductions for housing, tools and other basic expenses. One worker said that after his boss had chewed through his wages, the net earnings amounted to just pennies an hour.
The consequences of trying to quit might sting even more. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s investigative report on guestworker programs quoted Otto Rafael Boton-Gonzalez, a Guatemalan H2B forestry worker:
When the supervisor would see that a person was ready to leave the job because the pay was so bad, he would take our papers from us. He would rip up our visa and say, ‘You don’t want to work? Get out of here then. You don’t want to work? Right now I will call immigration to take your papers and deport you.’
The racket extends all the way to the courtroom. According to a contempt order filed in the Superior Forestry suit, a crew leader tried to frighten employees out of participating in the suit, “telling them that the workers who joined the lawsuit were run out of the company and ‘kicked in the butts.’” Spanish-speaking workers reportedly never received essential legal notices about the case in their language.
While the immigration debate has revolved around how to “legalize” undocumented immigrants, the legal gray area occupied by guestworkers may be a case study in how reform could ultimately miss the forest for the trees. Some support the expansion of guestworker programs as a way to standardize and control the flow of labor across borders. But the history of such programs in the agricultural sector, from the Braceros to today’s Florida tomato-pickers, suggest a long tradition of government-sponsored exploitation.
Recently, H2B workers have been organizing to challenge systemic abuses. H2B immigrants from India, brought to the post-Katrina Gulf Coast to work on oil rigs, have launched a direct-action campaign and filed a lawsuit accusing their former employer of using the visa system as a conduit for abuse, fraud and forced labor.
For the migrants toiling silently in the wilderness, the “legal” path into the economy has, perversely, left them even more trapped than some undocumented workers. H2B connected them to a job, but only by tethering them with a legal ball-and-chain, forged by the country’s most powerful human trafficker: Washington.
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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.