Beneath the Pines


Throughout the South, men imported from foreign countries are doing backbreaking forestry work under the federal government's "guestworker" program. Denied the protection of the marketplace, these foreign workers are modern-day indentured servants, bound to unscrupulous labor contractors who routinely exploit them. Often forced to mortgage their futures to get here, they are systematically underpaid in jobs as dangerous as they are grueling. If they dare complain, they and their families risk physical retaliation and financial ruin.

Here, in their own words, are the stories of migrant workers brought to the United States from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras to plant trees, thin forests and apply herbicides for timber contractors operating on our public lands and on huge commercial tracts in the South.

Under federal rules, labor contractors who bring in these workers on short-term, temporary H-2B visas must guarantee a minimum hourly wage, or "prevailing wage," which varies based on where the work is performed. To obtain these visas, employers must certify they have been unable to find enough domestic workers.

This system is broken. The Immigrant Justice Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center documented serious, widespread abuse and exploitation of H-2B reforestation workers:

• Workers routinely log 60 or more hours each week but earn substantially less than the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour, and certainly less than the "prevailing wage" required for H-2B reforestation workers. 

• Workers are not paid federally required overtime and often are forced to pay for their own work tools, visas and travel expenses -- in violation of the law. 

• Some employers seize workers' passports and other identity documents upon their arrival, and many require workers to leave the deeds to their homes with recruiters in their home countries. These practices create a captive workforce unlikely to complain about wages and working conditions. 

        • Workers often suffer terrible accidents on the job, but few receive workers' compensation benefits. Workers commonly are driven long distances at high speeds without sufficient seat belts. Many have lost their lives in van accidents.

In the course of preparing four class action lawsuits against forestry contractors, we have talked with more than a thousand pineros -- men who have planted, thinned and sprayed chemicals on the trees in our nation's forestland -- since December 2004. This report contains the words of just a few of these men, but the stories they tell are representative of hundreds of others with whom we have spoken. Many of these stories are taken from sworn statements filed in various lawsuits on behalf of forestry workers in the South.

Finally, we offer recommendations -- ranging from increased enforcement of guestworker rights to new safety requirements -- to ensure that these workers are treated fairly when they come to work in the United States.