Former migrant worker Leonardo Cortez talks about his time working for an American carnival company, where he said he was the victim of wage deception and other labor law violations. (Mitchell Armentrout/Medill)

Former migrant worker Leonardo Cortez talks about his time working for an American carnival company, where he said he was the victim of wage deception and other labor law violations. (Mitchell Armentrout/Medill)


WASHINGTON–Advocates say that behind the bright lights and nostalgia of the traveling fair and carnival industry are foreign workers on temporary visas who face wage deception, health risks and  intimidation, charges that industry leaders vehemently reject.

The workers, mainly from Mexico, are employed under temporary nonagricultural work visas—or H-2B visas—but are  exploited with long hours and substandard living conditions, according to a  study by the American University Washington College of Law and the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante.

They say their findings are a microcosm of issues plaguing the H-2B guest worker program, used by employers to hire laborers in fields such as landscaping, tourism, hospitality, forestry, food processing and construction. The Department of Labor reports that about 115,000 people holding H-2B visas are in the U.S. at any given time. The Washington College of Law and the Mexican-based migrant rights center interviewed about 25 migrant fair and carnival workers in an effort to shed light on the need for Congress and the Labor Department to rethink H-2B visa provisions.

The guest worker visa should be part of the  immigration reform debate, Sarah Rempel, policy attorney for Centro, said.

“It’s not a case of one or two bad apples,” she said. “The problem is widespread, pervasive across the industry.”

In a statement, Outdoor Amusement Business Association President Robert Johnson called the study “flawed and obviously biased.”

“Anonymous interviews with 25 individuals [do] not provide an accurate picture of the thousands of workers who voluntarily come to the United States each year to work in the mobile amusement industry,” Johnson said in a statement, suggesting that the study is “clearly designed to promote a predetermined legislative agenda.”

About 5,000 workers were brought to the country to work for carnival operators last year on H-2B visas, most of them recruited from rural areas in Mexico. They traveled across the country to assemble and operate carnival rides and to staff attractions, powering the seasonal fair and carnival months, according to Carson Osberg of the Washington College of Law’s Immigrant Justice Clinic.

The new study is based on information from anonymous migrant workers who were interviewed last year at carnivals  in Maryland and Virginia. Researchers said they also spoke with individuals in several Mexican communities where U.S. employers recruit. They found that workers eager to send money home to their families are lured by the promise of higher wages.

Often, according to the study, migrant workers arrive to find a very different picture—up to 18-hour workdays with weekly lump sum payments of less than $300. For some workers, up to five months of wages are necessary just to offset the cost of getting back and forth from the U.S. to Mexico., researchers said.

“It was really hard to come home to my family [in Zacatecas],” Leonardo Cortez said through a translator. The former migrant worker spoke at the National Press Club as the study was released Feb. 20. “I was supposed to come back with money. I came back with even more debt.”

Workers operate heavy machinery without protective equipment, researchers said, and because not all states require employers to provide insurance, it can be impossible for them to receive compensation for work-related injuries as they travel across the country.

Researchers also found that H-2B fair workers often live in cramped trailers in remote areas near fairgrounds, prone to insect infestations and lacking adequate showers or bathrooms. In addition, they often work and live in extreme heat, the study found.

“The housing conditions were deplorable, unacceptable for living,” said Martin Davila, a former migrant worker who was recruited to work in Delaware.

But because H-2B visas tie workers to one employer, they often are reluctant to complain for fear of being sent home or blacklisted from the industry, according to the study.

Industry insiders categorically denied the study’s claims of abuse. James Judkins is a leading workforce referral agent hired by the some of the industry’s largest amusement companies every season to bring in H-2B workers, almost all from Mexico.

An industry veteran of more than 30 years, he helped get about 3,000 migrant workers hired for fairs and carnivals last year.  Judkins said he interviews workers when their work is complete to hear any complaints. He said he wouldn’t work with employers that break the rules.

“The allegations are ludicrous, and it offends me personally,” he said. “It’s in our best interest to have happy workers.” Judkins said that while he has heard isolated rumors in the past about amusement companies violating labor laws, those problems were quickly weeded out.

“If you do something wrong, you’ll get caught,” he said.

Danny Huston, president of North American Midway Entertainment, one of America’s largest traveling amusement companies, said in a statement that the report makes “statements and generalizations that do not accurately reflect” his company. Huston said his company pays H-2B workers the prevailing minimum wage and provides free transportation for workers to receive medical care. Like all employees, he said, H-2B workers go through workplace safety training, are provided with protective equipment and receive workers’ compensation in case of injury. Workers can request breaks in addition to company-mandated rest periods, he said.

“The issue of fatigue is both an employee health and customer safety issue,” Huston said.

A 2010 study by the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, found several instances of labor law violations across the country through undercover phone calls with H-2B private hiring agencies. On three of 18 phone calls, investigators posing as employers were provided with advice on skirting H-2B program rules, including using “off-the book transactions to avoid restrictions on pay reductions.”

During work site visits, GAO investigators found employees at one location who were unwilling to speak to outsiders for fear of retaliation from their bosses. However, the report concluded that guest workers interviewed “were generally pleased with their living and working conditions” and that findings of mistreatment could not be projected across the entire H-2B program.

The American University law school study lays out  recommendations for Congress and the Department of Labor to combat abuses of migrant workers, including:

–protection against retaliation for employees who report bad working conditions

–allowing guest workers to switch employers while in the U.S.

–stricter enforcement of minimum wage laws and workplace safety regulations.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports tighter immigration control, said his organization believes guest worker programs take away jobs from American workers. But Krikorian said he is “not unsympathetic” to the problems facing migrant workers.

“These kinds of low-skilled positions are inherently exploitable,” Krikorian said.

Martin Davila said he was glad to see the study bring attention to the abuses that he says have affected him and many people like him.

“I’m hoping it’ll be of help to my fellow countrymen, who need to know that there are people who can help them and that we can move ahead, and make this situation better,” he said.