Partnership Spotlight with Western Slope Against Trafficking
The following story is a part of a special series that highlights the release of the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking’s research report, The Colorado Project 2023. This series provides a platform for the diverse voices and partnerships working together to end human trafficking across our state. Discover why trust, equity, and effectiveness are critical elements of the anti-trafficking movement.
“The solitude. The cold. Bad food, no bathrooms, [and] drinking dirty water.”
“Like dogs, the employee doesn’t matter.”
That’s what three sheepherders working in remote reaches of Colorado’s Western Slope had to say about their working conditions.
The Western Slope (the region west of the Continental Divide) is a stark rural landscape of vast plains broken by sharp mountain peaks and cut through by wide rivers and craggy canyons. Here, many migrant sheepherders live on ranches dotted across the plains, but for them, life can be anything but picturesque.
Migrant herders from Chile, Peru, and Mexico often come to Colorado and other Western states for employment opportunities. But sometimes, what they find are exploitative ranches that demand they be on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. They live in small campers without electricity, toilets, or running water. Most herders reported having no days off over a year. More than 80% said they could not leave their ranch or have visitors. These workers have been consistently exploited to the financial benefit of their employers – the very definition of labor trafficking.
Collaboration is vital to ending human trafficking and protecting vulnerable groups, like these sheepherders. Let us introduce you to one of the great collaborators in Colorado, Tom Acker. Tom is the Co-Founder of Western Slope Against Trafficking (WSAT), a community partnership that supports survivors of human trafficking and raises awareness about this widespread human rights crisis through training and community education. Tom’s work with sheepherders stretches back well over a decade. His interviews with almost 100 herders were critical in helping the Migrant Farm Worker Division of Colorado Legal Services publish the 2010 paper, “Overworked and Underpaid: H-2A Herders in Colorado”.
The Reality of Working Conditions for Many Migrant Sheepherders
The report states, “During many years of work with herders, [Colorado Legal Services] has discovered that herders often pay substantial recruitment fees to obtain their jobs, so they arrive in the U.S. in considerable debt. After arriving in debt, herders are eager to avoid any conflict with an employer that could result in blacklisting, retaliation, or deportation. This, coupled with their extreme isolation, engenders a climate of fear among herders, making them vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment.”
Poor pay, unethical living conditions, and exploitative employer practices are signs of labor trafficking. Almost all of these workers are living and working legally in Colorado through the H-2A program, which allows U.S. employers to bring in foreign farm workers if there are insufficient U.S. workers to meet the employers’ needs. “[Overworked and Underpaid: H-2A Herders in Colorado] revealed the power imbalances and the abuses structurally inherent in the H-2A program, especially as it is applied to the sheepherders,” says Tom.
Ultimately, that research paper and the media interest led to a dramatic pay raise for sheepherders (from approximately $700/month to $2,000/month). The main recommendation from that paper was a series of changes to the H-2A program to increase standards and compliance. Today, Tom believes in eliminating the H-2A system for sheepherders entirely; the H-2A visa was intended as a seasonal program, but herders are here all year long. Furthermore, sheepherders are routinely exploited due to those power imbalances and the fact that employers can end a worker’s contract without any justification.
Building Alliances Against Labor Trafficking in the Western Slope
Tom says that our team at the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking was “instrumental in getting him involved in an official capacity” after his work on “Overworked and Underpaid” established him as a local expert on labor trafficking. Together, Tom and LCHT set up a regional task force of professors, healthcare professionals, and criminal justice workers before WSAT officially began its work. Tom was appointed to the Human Trafficking Council for the State of Colorado, where, over eight years, he engaged with statewide efforts that earned him a broader understanding of trafficking’s many facets. Now he applies that knowledge to continue the fight against labor trafficking in this underresourced region.
Through his work at Western Slope Against Trafficking, Tom helps support survivors of labor trafficking and educates the community. On that front, he hosts workshops and seminars in both English and Spanish to teach community members how to spot the signs of human trafficking and how to respond.
But Tom explains that rural areas — like those across the Western Slope — tend to lack funding for services compared to more urban areas. This makes it more difficult to identify cases of labor trafficking, and even when they are discovered, fewer resources are available to intervene successfully. “There are so many uncovered abuses,” he says. “We don’t have the funding we need, and law enforcement doesn’t have the training they need.”
That lack of resources means it is almost impossible for partnerships like WSAT to actively investigate potential trafficking. Instead, they host community presentations to get the word out about what they offer. If you need help, Tom and his team can connect you with the services and organizations that can get you out of a dangerous situation (including Colorado’s 24/7 Human Trafficking Hotline & Resource Directory). Tom’s phone number is often shared from one sheepherder to another with the promise that he will do whatever he can to help.
Connecting Survivors with a Network of Support
That may be connecting survivors with housing services to have a safe place to live while they build a life away from the exploitative ranches. It could be medical services that help treat them for illnesses and injuries they sustained during their work. It could be legal aid or finding stable employment. Whatever the survivor needs, Tom and his team have a network of resources that they can help survivors navigate.
Tom doesn’t just refer survivors elsewhere, though. He’ll do whatever is in his power to help. Tom helped one survivor find a job at a local university, where he acted as a translator for the Spanish-speaking man throughout the hiring process. Tom relays the story, saying that this individual had gotten out of a trafficking situation and was finding his feet with the help of several community members and organizations. At the interview, the custodial supervisor asked, “Do you think you’ll have any problems fulfilling your duties here?”.
Tom translated the man’s answer for the interviewers: “In Chile, I worked in a mine three hundred meters below the surface. I was completely dependent on the two men working beside me. It was life or death every day. So, I think I’ll be able to handle my cleaning duties here.”
“Their jaws dropped,” says Tom. “These [migrants] come from a world that few Americans can conceive of. The interviewers were blown away that a community would come around this man, embrace him, and facilitate his reentry into society after enduring labor abuse and trafficking. The people in that interview will think differently after hearing about that man’s life experience.”
For WSAT to grow its impact, it needs to expand its network. “What we’re doing, little by little, is building connections.” By sharing information and techniques with other community, civil, and government organizations, we can help weave a wider web that finds and supports more survivors.
Tom would also like to see more outreach through the education system. Youth are a vulnerable population that traffickers frequently target, so raising their awareness of the risks is crucial. Plus, involving students, faculty, and administration in the fight against trafficking would help increase the number of watchful eyes and ears in the community.
At the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking, we believe that when a community channels its genuine care and empathy into action, lives are changed for the better. Every person and every partnership can make a difference. Tom concludes, “Human trafficking is a painful crime, but it is not impossible to end.”
The Colorado Project is a community-based, research-focused approach to ending human trafficking in Colorado. Led by the nonprofit the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking (LCHT), The Colorado Project began in 2010 as a rigorous grassroots research project that helps us uncover what human trafficking looks like in Colorado, what has been done in the past to address it, and what we can do in the future to end it. LCHT released the third iteration of The Colorado Project results in October, 2023. This time, The Colorado Project 2023 revealed that cross-sector partnerships, staff training in key sectors such as healthcare and education, and addressing housing insecurity are key to ending human trafficking in Colorado.