Indentured servitude in the pines

 

Managing America's national forests for commercial timber production involves a lot of hard, dirty work -- clearing brush, thinning small trees, and replanting areas that have been harvested. It's work that native-born Americans aren't exactly lining up to do. And so the Forest Service, like so many other organizations, has found itself relying on immigrant labor.

Most of these immigrants have come to the U.S. on H2B visas that allow them to work for a single employer -- in their case, a Forest Service contractor. This tenuous legal status has led to systematic exploitation. A series of Sacramento Bee articles in 2005 revealed a long list of abuses by multiple contractors -- substandard employer-provided housing, unreasonable paycheck deductions for things as basic as food eaten while working in the field, and the failure to take simple measures -- such as providing safety glasses or seat belts in vehicles -- to protect workers' safety.

In a bit of a delayed response to the Bee's investigation, the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public lands held a hearing yesterday on the plight of the "pineros," the immigrants who do the Forest Service's dirty work. The testimony of Micheal Dale, director of the Northwest Workers' Justice Project, was particularly disturbing. Dale says that immigrants are forced to borrow money -- often from their employers -- to cover recruitment fees and transportation to the U.S. They then spend a good bit of the season working to pay off this debt. They can't quit and look for another job because their visa doesn't allow them to work for anyone else. They're stuck, no matter how abusive their employer turns out to be.

Companies that hire immigrants on H2A visas -- which are essentially H2B visas for agricultural workers -- have been required, ever since the 11th Circuit Court's 2002 decision in Arriaga v. Florida Pacific Farms, to reimburse  employees for travel costs to the United States within the first week of their employment. Companies with H2B employees should be required to do the same. Otherwise the Forest Service -- and a whole lot of other businesses and government agencies  -- will continue to be complicit in a modern-day form of indentured servitude.