By TOM KNUDSON AND HECTOR AMEZCUA
November 21, 2005
As the migrant workers suffered, U.S. Forest Service officials in Idaho supervising the work were taking notes. But their primary concern was trees, not people. "Pace too slow," one jotted in a memo. "Foreman not active enough vis a vis quality, production, direction."
Pineros - pine workers, as Latino forest laborers are known - have long battled abusive working conditions. But today, there is a new edge to the drama: Much of the mistreatment is unfolding inside a government program that invites foreign workers to the United States to fill labor shortages.
Unlike millions of Latin Americans who cross the border illegally to work in El Norte, the pineros toiling on federal land in Idaho were in this country legally, part of a small army of foreign residents who fill low-paying, non-farm jobs under a little-known federal guest worker program.
Yet the 10,000 or so forest guest workers, who plant trees across the nation and thin fire-prone woods out West as part of the Bush administration's Healthy Forests Initiative, have hardly been treated with hospitality.
A nine-month Sacramento 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.
Foreign guest workers take jobs most Americans don't want - in fact that is a condition of their employment. They mow lawns, wash dishes, clean hotel rooms. Of the estimated 66,000 guest workers in this country, forest workers are the second-largest group, after landscape laborers.
And employers want more of them. This spring, Congress passed legislation making it easier for companies to hire the nonresident employees, officially known as H2B workers to distinguish them from H2A guest workers in agriculture. Bush administration officials support expanding the H2B work force, saying legal temporary foreign workers help solve myriad problems of undocumented labor.
But 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.
"There is a move to use this program and hold it up like it's a darling child, but on the ground, it's so problematic," said Maria Andrade, a Boise, Idaho, attorney who works with migrant laborers.
Guest forest workers are routinely subjected to conditions not tolerated elsewhere in the United States, The Bee investigation found. They are gashed by chain saws, bruised by tumbling logs and rocks, verbally abused and forced to live in squalor.
And 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.
For years, the plight of H2B forest workers has remained out of sight, concealed by the remote job sites and the wariness of the workers, who generally don't speak English and fear retaliation by employers.
"Abuse is endemic to this system," said Mary Bauer, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama who has sued three forest contractors on behalf of guest workers. "Basically, we're importing indentured servants to perform government functions. That's really what this is."
The labor contractors who hire guest workers and put them to work on public and private land characterize accounts of mistreatment as overblown. They say they are beleaguered by government regulations, worker advocates and pineros who distort the truth and don't work hard enough.
"There are so many things you are continually battered with," said Robert "Wade" Zaharie, an Idaho contractor previously cited for federal labor violations and sued by his workers. "In this industry, you are always going to be painted as a bad person."
In the choppy, green hills of northern Guatemala, Edilberto Morales Luis has more than memories to remind him of his time as a guest worker in U.S. forests.
A quiet, solidly built man in his mid-20s, Morales is the lone survivor of a van accident in Maine that took the lives of 14 H2B forest workers.
It happened not on the job - but on the grueling drive to work on private land owned by a timber company called Pingree Associates. Shortly before 8 a.m. on Sept. 12, 2002, the driver of a van in which Morales was riding lost control while crossing a one-lane wooden bridge and tumbled upside-down into the Allagash River.
One morning last spring, Morales shuffled across a small bedroom in his home and pointed to a picture of eight guest workers, posing for a group photo in the Maine woods.
"He died. He died. He died," he said, touching one face after another. "That one's my uncle. He died."
In early 2002, Morales had left Guatemala with an H2B visa to work for Evergreen Forestry Services, an Idaho-based reforestation contractor. But there was something he and his co-workers on the Maine job did not know, something buried in the U.S. government's files: Evergreen had a long record of mistreating workers.
"Subject has a lengthy and woeful history of non-compliance," a federal inspector wrote in 1998. "(Its) history reads like 'The Anatomy of a Worst Violator.' " Evergreen had altered timecards and failed to pay overtime, the files say, shorting workers out of more than $250,000 in all.
Two years later, another investigator cited Evergreen for a thicket of additional violations, including transporting workers in an unsafe van. "The vehicle ... had visible bald tires," the investigator wrote.
The Bee tried to reach Peter Smith, Evergreen's owner, on several occasions, but he did not return calls.
Government files also contained letters from migrant advocates, pleading with the Labor Department to stop Evergreen from hiring foreign workers. Yet while one branch of the Labor Department, the wage and hour division, was repeatedly citing Evergreen, another branch - the employment and training administration - was authorizing it to hire H2B workers.
After the van accident, migrant advocates were outraged.
"The very agencies whose duty it was to protect workers fell down on the job," said Lori Elmer, an attorney for forest workers in North Carolina. "They had all the information and still didn't do anything. It was a complete breakdown."
In December 2002, the Labor Department revoked Evergreen's license. Last year, it fined the company $17,000 - $1,000 for each fatality, $1,000 for Morales and $2,000 for failing to register the van or driver as required under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.
That fine has not been paid and Smith remains in business at Progressive Environmental, where he became president this year, Idaho state records show.
Since 2003, Smith's new company has been awarded $238,000 in government contracts for work on Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management land in Oregon and Montana, according to the Federal Procurement Data System, an online inventory of federal contracts.
Labor Department spokeswoman Dolline Hatchett said Smith's involvement with another reforestation company is legal because he has appealed the agency's revocation of his license. "It's all still up in the air," she said.
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