The New West's servant economy
(This HCN magazine cover story is accompanied by seven sidebars listed at the end.)
Struggling with a language that would not be his first or even his second choice, Dabo Pobot tried to explain how he and other Africans have been imported to serve ski country, USA.
If I wrote it the way he said it: Dey sell Ah-fricahn people he-ah. I tell dem dat. We are not slaves! Dey tink we are. No! Dis time is past.
For miles around us, the slopes glittered with four feet of fresh powder. It was peak season, early February, and skiers had the place bustling. I was midway through a weeklong exploration of the heart of ski country: Summit and Eagle counties in Colorado, which rank 1 and 2 in the nation as skier destinations when the local resorts are added up - famous Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and more. The Africans looked startlingly black against all the whiteness.
When I told him something like, "Dabo, your tale is incredible, how you got from a thatched village guarded by crocodiles to a job vacuuming the Hilton in this land of designer snow and $48 lift tickets," he thought I'd doubted his word, and he drew himself up in his chest and insisted, "I am Mandingo!" Translation: As a member of that tribal group, his word can be counted on.
Dabo went on explaining how it is to wake up in the working class of Summit County. Only the details vary; all sorts of people came a long way to earn treadmill wages here and get tucked away in the trailer-park ghettos or low-income apartments or behind some pretty mountain, where their problems are mostly invisible to the skiers and vacation-homesteaders.
Item from the Rocky Mountain News: "An Eastern family recently paid $5.6 million for a vacation house at the base of Vail Mountain. They plan to demolish it and replace it with another ski-in, ski-out trophy home."
Simultaneously, the Associated Press reports that 39 of Vail's 48 cops and firefighters can't afford to live in the town. At any given moment during ski season in the two counties, 2,000-3,000 jobs stand vacant because there aren't enough workers willing to accept the terms. It's the opposite of unemployment: The counties are 6 percent to 9 percent unstaffed.
The irony defines ski country around the West now. But here it seems especially sharp. Geraldine Portillo, from a poor family in southern Colorado, says she first got hired to clean rooms in ski country when she was 12 years old. Now 31, and attached to one cigarette after another, supporting herself cleaning rooms at the Club Med of the Copper Mountain ski resort, she says, "I never really had any childhood."
Also bitter is Patti Stoddard, 34, who, after four years working by the hour around here, gave up a shack-like trailer where everything was broken and began the ski season living in a tent in the national forest with her three children, including 7-month-old Gabriel. "Nobody gave a damn," she says.
Sister Annette Carrica, of the Ohio-based Sisters of Charity, spent six years on the altiplano of Peru, trying to help the Quechua Indians; now she is on a mission in ski country, trying to foster a sense of community in immigrants from Latin America. "Here," she says, "it's a lot harder to do things."
The story could be cast through the eyes of recent arrival Salvador Sebastian, who came from Mexico because he heard of opportunity here. Now that he's working here, Salvador sees that his situation is el mismo, about the same as in Mexico.
But it is the Africans who most clearly represent how ski country is beginning to resemble the Third World. There are at least 20 Africans who've been imported to Summit County jobs through the same pipeline. I saw that many in low-income apartments, where they were living with almost no furniture, sitting on the floor to have dinner, sleeping on the floor at least two to a bedroom. One African said maybe there are 40 here.
They come from hot countries in West Africa - Mali, Senegal, Cameroon, Mauritania and Ghana - and they speak their original tribal languages, plus a fair amount of French, the language of the old colonizers. For the most part they lack English and they entirely lack Spanish - the emerging language of ski-country workers. So the Africans seem doubly isolated here.
Dabo? Or, Pobot. Such a simple thing as family name is another way in which the Africans are strangers in a strange land; Americans who deal with them regularly aren't sure if the Africans put their family names first or last.
When I asked Dabo if the village where he grew up had electricity, he couldn't stop laughing; of course no electricity. I went to the library and looked up his country, Mali: half Saharan desert, the rest hot grassland and swamp, highest elevation below 4,000 feet, home to hyenas and hippos and giraffes and the town of Timbuktu, and people mostly getting by on subsistence agriculture when drought and famine don't interfere. Malaria is widespread and life expectancy for those who survive birth is 40 years - Dabo's age.
The African women I interviewed were so shy they would answer almost nothing. One, who would give only her initials, A.N., said, "Africa now is too hard."
Tolerating another question, Sidibeb Amarama replied, "What is ski? I don't know ski."
As the Africans tell it, they made their way separately from their home countries to the big stew, New York City. Dabo had the equivalent of a high-school diploma and a good job back in Mali, working for a government company as a traveling movie projectionist. The job vanished when the World Bank ordered his government to privatize everything. "My company was for liquidation," he said. "I don't have not-ting to do."
African immigrants make a loose community in Manhattan, where Dabo had an apartment with some of the others and worked as a bicycle messenger. Seeking a regular job, the Africans tried an employment agency. It turned out to be the mouth of the pipeline.
The agency asked for $100 each, up front, and referred them to the woman they know as Natalie. Natalie received the Africans in the office she shares with her husband, immigration lawyer Earl S. David, on the 60th floor of the impressive building at 40 Wall Street.
"Many people of my group doesn't go to school and he doesn't know if some-ting is right or wrong" in the papers that were signed and the money paid, Dabo told me. "Because Natalie speaks French, African people trust her."
Natalie charged the Africans another $300 to $500 each. In exchange, she connected them with Clean Serve, a corporation based in Atlanta, Ga., with field representatives around the country. The contract Natalie had the Africans sign is merely a few sentences typewritten in English. It authorizes Clean Serve to make deductions from each paycheck the Africans get, until Natalie's base fee, $300, is covered. Some of the Africans paid her an extra $200 up front before they left New York, according to the Africans and a manager involved in the employment pipeline.
"This fee represents relocation assistance and is not an employment-related fee," the contract states. The "assistance" didn't amount to much: By signing, the Africans also agreed to the declarations, "I understand that there is no transportation, food or housing with this occupation. I hereby state, I have $500 U.S. funds with me to pay for my transportation, food and housing."
Dabo's contract guaranteed him 40 hours of work a week for $6.50 an hour, in some place called Colorado. He told me, "I had never heard of Colorado before."
The Africans paid another $139 each for their Greyhound tickets from New York to Silverthorne, the commercial strip in Summit County. From the moment Dabo and his group stepped off the bus in mid-December, they had to scramble for a landing, even as they were put to work.
"Five person in each room, two beds," Dabo said, describing the first living situation the local Clean Serve representative placed them in: a hotel. There is some disagreement about the cost. Dabo said he paid $150 for three nights at the hotel. Clean Serve's chief executive officer said the cost was shared by the corporation. There is no disagreement that from then on, Dabo and his group got bounced around.
Shelling out more money at each place, they bunked at a hostel that is also the Greyhound station, and then they were moved 60 miles out to a by-the-week hotel - rooms over a thrift store - in Kremmling, a ranch town that is becoming a makeshift bedroom for ski country workers.
"I accepted this situation," Dabo said, "because I have to send some-ting to my wife (and three kids, all back in Mali). If I was single, I would not accept it."
But instead of gaining from his work, the $1,000 stake he'd had in his pocket leaving New York was rapidly being gnawed away.
Of the Africans I met, Dabo had the most English, but he wouldn't let me take his photo. "I don't need all people to see my picture," he said. The others also preferred not to be photographed, and one indicated it has to do with religion: They are Muslims. Indeed, one of Dabo's few possessions is a clock shaped like a mosque, which announces when it is time for him to kneel and pray to Mecca, five times a day.
Finally I met one man not shy of the camera. He said he is Dabo's brother, but later Dabo explained that all of them are brothers in the tribal sense. The sophisticate is named Lakamy (or if I prefer, Jean-Jacques) Maguiraga.
Lakamy said his parents were from Mali but he was born in Paris, which explained why he was looking natty on his day off, wearing a patterned blazer and slacks and shiny shoes. The others tend to go barefoot or sandaled indoors on their time off.
Smiling for the shot, Lakamy said he has two citizenships: French and Mali. He said he's educated, has an electrician's degree, but so far in ski country, he's relegated to the work many of the other Africans do, cleaning rooms at the Breckenridge Hilton.
"I don't have electrician's job here, is not possible," Lakamy said. "Is no good. Pay is bad. Yesterday, only me, 19 rooms. Eight checkout (which requires a thorough cleaning). I don't have pay by room." He said he was getting the $6.50 an hour, which happens to be the de facto minimum wage in this corner of ski country, no sick days or paid holidays.
Dabo was the most outspoken, but Lakamy and many of the other Africans also felt they were lured into the ski country jobs and then sandbagged.
Clean Serve, and other companies like it, fill a niche around the U.S., supplying workers to businesses that have critical need. But it gets complicated with Clean Serve. The contracts the Africans signed say they work for Clean Serve Inc., but the corporation's CEO, Christopher Powers, said the corporation should be referred to by a slightly different title. Powers' signature appears on the contracts, but he says the signature is a forgery (not done by the Africans).
Powers said he could make "a good guess' who had done the forgery, but declined to elaborate.
Clean Serve (or whatever corporate title is in effect) has been operating in Summit County for two ski seasons, handling Russian, Polish and Bulgarian workers; this is the first season for Africans. Clean Serve contracts with the Hilton, taking a percentage off the top and then paying the Africans. Clean Serve also had Africans working as housekeepers at the Keystone Resort, and some commuting by ski lift to jobs at a restaurant on the Breckenridge ski mountain.
Africans have taken the pipeline to other locations, including Memphis, Tenn., where some work in casino hotels just across the state line in Mississippi. Mississippi has legalized gambling and has just moved into the number 2 spot in gambling revenues, behind only Nevada. One African told me the math in Memphis was even worse than here:
Sidibe Amard, with Dabo translating, said he got $5.50 an hour to clean rooms at the casino hotel, so $44 gross a day, minus $14 a day to stay in the worker hotel where Clean Serve set him up, minus $6 a day to ride the commuter van that was provided, minus taxes and deductions for Natalie. His net for eight hours' work was $10 or $15. He quit after one day and moved on to Summit County.
Much like in a small town, the sudden appearance of Africans in Summit County has rumors flying, even among government officials: Clean Serve might be busing 100 Africans in from Denver each day; Clean Serve might be paying its workers less than minimum wage and raking the rest off the top ...
The Africans had paycheck stubs showing gross hourly pay of $6.50. Clean Serve officials offer varying profit pictures. The local Clean Serve representative, Jan Pilka, told me the corporation has placed 1,200 workers around the U.S. and makes $1 an hour on each ($48,000 a week total).
Clean Serve's CEO, Powers, interviewed by phone from his Atlanta office, said the corporation only has 300 to 400 workers in place around the U.S. - including 100 Africans - on a profit margin much slimmer than $1 an hour. He declined to say what the profit was. He said there were 50 Clean Serve workers in Summit County this season.
Powers also said the Africans and other hotel workers are paid by a separate corporation, Clean Serve Contract Labor Inc., of which he is also the chief executive officer. He said the second corporation, formed a few years ago, is about to change its name to International Labor Corp. The second corporation was formed after Clean Serve itself got involved in a multimillion-dollar dispute with Kmart.
Clean Serve was supplying janitors to several hundred Kmart stores coast-to-coast, but Kmart canceled the contract, amid allegations that some of the Polish-immigrant janitors were undocumented. The dispute grew into a federal-court lawsuit, with sworn allegations and denials of witness tampering by a Clean Serve officer (not Powers). A final judgment in the case is pending.
Powers said he and the corporation had nothing to do with the money the Africans paid to the recruiters in New York. He said the corporation taps recruiters around the U.S., wherever immigrants collect, and maintains a recruiting office in Eastern Europe. "We do have to rely on them from our end to connect with the labor pool."
In the U.S., the workers are placed "anywhere there's a labor shortage, any destination-type (resort) area."
He said the corporation is "building for the future" in ski country, planning to start operations in other ski towns around the West.
After taxes and deductions for Natalie, the take-home from the Clean Serve job at the Hilton was a slim $700 to $800 a month, out of which the Africans had to pay their ongoing expenses. Life here is far from cheap.
"Check out the McDonald's in Vail," another worker told me. "It used to be the most expensive McDonald's in the world, until they built one in Moscow and one in Beijing."
The McDonald's in Vail looks like any other McDonald's. An American flag flaps overhead. The manager, Steve Bradvica, sets the record straight: "I think we're the 11th in the world (in terms of prices). You got Tokyo, Sweden, Paris ..."
A Vail Big Mac runs nearly a buck more than a Denver Big Mac.
"We are the first African people to come here, and people don't know us," Dabo said. "It is very difficult first time."
To make the 120-mile round-trip commute from Kremmling to the Hilton job, Dabo's group chipped in on a succession of cheap cars. The cars kept breaking down and the missed work days meant even less income.
They had it worse than many other workers in ski country. Around the West, more and more ski-related businesses are so hungry for workers that they provide transportation and help with housing. Each morning, Wendy's fast food in Silverthorne runs a van load of workers all the way from the Denver area, up 60 miles of interstate and through a tunnel in the Continental Divide. The workers get paid for their commuting time. Some ride another 35 miles, over Vail Pass, to reach the Wendy's in Vail.
Some resorts and hotels here run vans and full-size buses over the snowy passes to gather workers from Leadville, an old mining town that is another bedroom community. A public bus system based in Eagle County also runs to and from Leadville during the worker rush hours.
The City Market grocery in Avon, the shopping center for the Beaver Creek ski resort, stashes its workers upstairs, in an entire second-story of dedicated apartments. The McDonald's in Vail has worker apartments off the premises. Club Med at Copper Mountain keeps its cooks, housekeepers and dishwashers in an apartment building 25 miles away, over the pass in Leadville.
According to CEO Powers, Clean Serve made an effort to help the Africans. Jan Pilka, the local representative and himself a Polish immigrant, acted as chauffeur for some Africans who were placed in Leadville. Each morning, Pilka made the run over the pass to pick them up and bring them to their jobs, and every evening at the end of their work day he took them home. Pilka also worked a night job at the Hilton.
Powers, who visited Summit County regularly to try to keep things running, said he provided a car for Dabo's group, but Dabo said the Africans were expected to pay $600 for the car, and it broke down so often, they returned it and began using another car that was also unreliable.
"I'm only successful if I can place happy, good workers with my clients," Powers said. "One of my priorities is to listen to the needs of my workers."
Meanwhile, the Africans were paying $71.50 each per week to stay in Kremmling at the Modern Hotel, two to each room upstairs, pay phone downstairs.
Sharline Curry, owner of the hotel, said that when Pilka delivered the first Africans - two women - -he dumped all their stuff at the door. He didn't even help them carry it up (to the second-floor rooms). He just wanted to get rid of them, I guess. The next day, he dumped off three more (men) ... What can I do? It's 8 o'clock at night and dark and cold."
She said that often the cars in question "wouldn't run" and she had to get up at 5:30 a.m. to give the Africans a jump start.
After more than a month of that, Curry said, the Africans got to be too much of a burden on her and the other roomers. There was a hallway kitchen, and the Africans were taking food that belonged to other roomers, not recognizing it as stealing, just tribalizing the fridge.
So Curry called up the CEO: "I told the man in Atlanta how I felt about him too. I just told him, they have to move. I said you know and I know, you can't just bring in people from foreign countries and drop them. There's a shanghai law ..."
Racial discrimination also made it tough for the Africans. Powers said he had an apartment rented and ready for Dabo's group, but at the last moment, when the landlord discovered his tenants would be Africans, the deal fell through. "Several places didn't want to rent to people with colored skin. I was a little surprised to run into that out there."
"We are here for work," Dabo told me. "We are not here to do some-ting wrong. That is the problem for all African people here. They (Anglos) don't know him. They don't trust him. If you was in Africa, you don't have same idea about black people or Africans."
Black people are an anomaly here. An American black, Zenison Kirksey, who works as a bus driver in Vail, told me he was surprised that the two local Wal-Marts don't stock "black hair products' found in Wal-Marts elsewhere. "All Wal-Marts are supposed to carry the same things, you know, but they don't here. I have to drive down to Denver to get (the black hair products)."
Dabo's group turned down another apartment because of the cost: $1,300 a month plus utilities and deposit, Powers said. Another group of Africans accepted that situation and wound up moving out, angry, after a month and 19 days. The place had three bedrooms but only two beds, so most of the sleeping was on the floor.
"When the people move (from New York), they lose every-ting," explained Dabo. "You can't bring your bed. You can't bring your television. Many tings you lose, and when you come here you have to pay every-ting again."
A few weeks before I met them, Dabo had begun a rebellion, calling and writing Powers in Georgia, telling him that promises had been broken and at the very least, no more paychecks should be nicked for Natalie's benefit. Powers stopped making the deductions on paychecks of the complainers.
According to Powers and other people who know them, some Africans are happy with their situation in Summit County. Powers said some had been promoted on their jobs. He said that when he comes to town, he's received as an honored guest, sitting on the floor in some apartment with the Africans and eating dinner.
Powers does sound sympathetic to the Africans' plight. He made arrangements so the Africans working at the Hilton could celebrate the Muslim holy days around Ramadan. "On days leading up to Ramadan, they're supposed to fast between sunrise and sunset. I arranged it so they could skip the mandatory half-hour debit for lunch those days ... I try to treat them fairly. I try to be honest. I tell them, "I'm not your father. I'm not your brother. I'm your employer." "
Natalie's husband and partner, Earl David, strikes a different tone: "In Africa they get $200 a year. So they come to America, working over here, it's better than nothing ... They have a sob story. They're bitching about life in America ... It's a free country, life goes on, if you don't like it, leave it."
Dabo said, "When you send someone to do work like this, tell him right, don't lie to him. Natalie sell African people here."
Twenty-seven of the Africans, including Dabo's group and the group that was placed in Leadville, now rely on government-subsidized housing - they've moved into a complex in Silverthorne that rents inexpensive apartments to people who meet federal poverty guidelines. In effect, taxpayers around the U.S. are helping support the Africans, Clean Serve, the Hilton and the ski resorts.
Melody Keane, manager of the apartments, said some of the Africans came in wholly unprepared for the basics: "They don't know how to work a furnace or a gas range."
When it became clear that the Africans lacked just about everything, people in a neighboring low-income project gathered what they could - a few pieces of furniture and kitchen utensils - and gave it to the Africans. The established poor helped out the newcomer poor.
Despite all that is going against the Africans, they are hanging on and some claw their way upward.
They have acquired a few pieces of furniture; the shortage still includes beds. From their subsidized apartments, they can ride the Summit County bus system, which is a measure of freedom.
Some of them are working second jobs at the Wendy's in Silverthorne, which pays better than the Hilton (starting pay at Wendy's is $7.50 to $9 an hour, plus a bonus and benefits such as a 401K pension plan). Other Africans are hearing about the jobs here and starting to trickle in spontaneously, with no involvement by Clean Serve.
"The foreign people we end up hiring usually work harder," says Debbie Beacco, shift manager at Wendy's. The Africans "learn some English - 'fries," they can learn that."
Dabo told me that he's lost faith that the United States is an example for the world. "The American people is generous. Some people is nice," he said. But how an operation like the Davids/Clean Serve "can do some-ting wrong like that to many people and nobody say any-ting, I was very surprised."
Dabo said he may move on, looking for better opportunity: He's heard there is work in the tourism industry during the summer in some place called Mackinac Island (in the strait between Lake Michigan and Lake Superior). "I don't have any address," he said. "I don't have any idea down there."
When I last saw him, Dabo's stake was down to $250. He's been sending as much of his pay as possible back to his wife and kids in Mali. If he leaves ski country at the end of this season, he'll go with a lot less than he had when he arrived.
Powers said the Africans at the Hilton have just been granted a 25-cents-an-hour raise.
These seven sidebars profile other workers and worker advocates:
Ray Ring is senior editor of High Country News.