Ranch denies abuse

Chilean immigrants allege mistreatment

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— Owners of a cattle ranch in Northwest Colorado said immigrant workers' allegations that the ranch violated fair labor practices are not true.

Five Chilean workers filed a civil lawsuit in Denver federal court last week against Vermillion Ranch Limited Partnership and its partners, six members of the Wright and Pauline Dickinson family. The ranch is located in parts of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.

The suit alleges the workers -- who were in the country on H-2A visas for temporary agricultural labor -- were forced to work 10 to 18 hours per day for $2 to $3 per hour. It also contends that some laborers were denied medical treatment and forced to work despite serious injuries.

Owners of the ranch issued a blanket denial of the allegations through SE2 Communications of Denver, a communications firm the ranch owners hired to represent them.

"Family members are saddened by the false allegations in this complaint," the statement reads.

"Vermillion Ranch has carefully followed all of the program rules and has never had any complaints. The U.S. Department of Labor and state workforce agency have in the past and continue to perform program inspections," according to the statement.

The statement added that the ranch "has always worked hard to do what is legally, ethically and morally right."

Colorado Legal Services' Migrant Worker Division, a nonprofit law firm that represents low-income people in civil cases, is representing the Chileans. Their attorney, Jennifer Lee, said the immigrants, who worked at the ranch between 2003 and 2005, are seeking undisclosed monetary damages.

The H-2A program allows employers' to acquire non-U.S. citizen employees for temporary or seasonal agriculture work.

Before a company can obtain foreign workers, it must complete paperwork agreeing to pay the employees a fixed wage -- in most cases, agricultural laborers are paid $8.75 per hour -- and provide suitable housing, said Bill Thoeness, a public information officer with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

Companies must also prove they tried to recruit American workers for the position, he added.

Dean Campbell, a district director in Salt Lake City for the U.S. Department of Labor, said provisions under H-2A legislation dictate that companies failing to adhere to program guidelines may be debarred from the program.

Companies are allowed to appeal those decisions, he added.

Campbell said he was not allowed to disclose whether previous labor complaints had been lodged against the Vermillion Ranch.

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