A farmworker advocacy group wants to end the federal H-2A guestworker program for sheepherders, a move that threatens the U.S. sheep industry, a representative of the Western Range Association said.
Washington, D.C.-based Farmworker Justice (FJ) has targeted the sheep industry's H-2A exemption, which allows U.S. sheep ranchers to hire year-round guestworkers from abroad.
If the exemption is terminated, hundreds of sheep ranchers around the West face an uncertain future, said Larry Williams, attorney for the Western Range Association.
"We've had a successful program. It has allowed the sheep industry to survive since World War II, which was about the time the domestic workforce dried up," Williams said.
FJ involvement in lawsuits over the use of H-2A in sheepherding in Washington state and elsewhere suggests the group is using the courts to achieve its goal of ending H-2A sheepherding, said Scott Dilley, a public policy analyst at the Washington Farm Bureau.
The organization's mission statement says that it engages in litigation, administrative and legislative advocacy, support for union organizing and other means "to empower migrant and seasonal farmworkers to improve their living and working conditions, immigration status, health, occupational safety and access to justice."
Williams said he thinks FJ also stays in communication and assists in the Department of Labor case, which it is trying to use to nullify the special H-2A procedures for sheepherding. If successful, those cases could make it impossible for sheepherders to use the H-2A program, he said.
Western Range, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, is a joint employer with its 220 sheep-rancher members for 900 H-2A sheepherders around the West. Mountain Plains Agricultural Service in Casper, Wyo., is an agent that helps in the hiring of about 500 H-2A sheepherders, and individual ranchers bring in about 100 sheepherders, Williams said.
The lawsuit against the labor department alleges it changed the special procedures in 2010 without allowing public comment, Williams said. Some of the same H-2A sheepherders are plaintiffs in the state cases and the labor department case.
Western Range is an intervener in the Department of Labor case.
Reprinted in part from Capital Press