The New West's servant economy

  • Ski areas of Colorado

    Diane Sylvain
  • Lakamy Maguiraga came a long way for a job cleaning rooms in ski country

    Ray Ring
  • Housekeeper Lakamy Maguiraga

    Ray Ring
  • Before dawn in Leadville, workers board the bus to jobs in Vail

    Ray Ring
  • What's driving the economy now: a skier at Copper Mountain Resort

    Ray Ring
  • Annette Carrica is on a mission in the trailer parks of Eagle County

    Ray Ring

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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:

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