Carnival workers’ reality: “If we complain, they’ll send us back to Mexico”

Outdoor carnivals, with their thrill rides, the carousel, cotton candy and arcade games, connote fun and happiness.  But for the immigrant workers employed in the U.S. carnival and fair industry, happiness and fun don’t describe their employment situation.

“They treat us like dogs.”

“Sometimes we work 20-hour days, and even if it’s raining…there’s no time to rest doing this kind of work.”

“He called us ‘[f***ing] Mexicans or [f***ing] tortillas.”

“I worked 98 hours a week, and earned $2 per hour.  I could take a brief break during the day, but only to go to the bathroom or eat.”

“We couldn’t even support ourselves, let alone send money home, which is why we came.”

“The trailers we live in are tiny and disgusting.”

“We are scared of being fired and sent home.”

This is what investigators with the Washington College of Law’s Immigrant Justice Center and Centro de los Derechos del Migrante heard from workers employed under the H-2B visa program who are employed by traveling fair and carnival operators.  The workers set-up and tear-down the rides, string electrical cables, paint equipment, make and serve food from concession stands, and clean the equipment and fairgrounds.   The H-2B program, which dates back to 1986, allows for the temporary admission of workers to perform seasonal, non agricultural work when an employer “attests” that U.S. workers are unavailable or unwilling to fill the jobs.  In fiscal year 2011, the largest employers in the traveling fair and carnival industry brought in about 1,800 workers, mostly from Mexico, to fill their jobs.

The investigators’ report, “Taken for a Ride: Migrant Workers in the U.S. Fair and Carnival Industry,” describes the mistreatment and abuse suffered by these workers, from minimum wage violations to serious safety hazards and substandard living conditions.  The phrase “indentured servitude” popped in my head several times as I read the report.  The investigators’ key findings were eerily familiar to a 2010 report they prepared on guest workers employed by the crab industry on Maryland’s eastern shore.  The mostly female crab-pickers are also guest workers under the H-2B program.

Guest workers in the H-2B program are at risk of abuse from their employers because of inadequate laws and enforcement.  The authors detail those abuses and provide a comprehensive list of recommendations for Congress, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and others.  The authors note that some key regulatory improvements were issued by DOL in 2012, including prohibitions against charging workers recruitment fees and travel costs, requirements to pay workers at least three-fourths of the hours promised for each 12-week period, and protections from retaliation for raising safety and other workplace concerns.  Just before these improvements were set to take effect, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and employer groups filed a lawsuit in federal court to challenge the regulation.  As a result, the new protections are on-hold.

Besides the lawsuit, the Outdoor Amusement Business Association (OABA) specifically asked its allies to contact their Members of Congress and urge them to nullify the new H-2B protections.  OABA also sought contributions for its “H-2B litigation fund” to further challenge the new guest worker protections.  The Association insists:

“…H-2B employees value the opportunities we give them and are grateful for the work our industry is able to provide.  This is reflected in their appearance, conduct and pride they take in their work.”

OABA suggests that advocates for better working conditions for guest workers are a threat to their industry.   They say:

“The H-2B program is still under attack by the Administration and DOL. They have unlimited resources and will appeal this decision and work to promote their quest to hire U.S. workers backed by labor unions and pseudo “worker’s rights” group’s agenda.  It is up to all of us in the H-2B stakeholder community to protect this essential program that the seasonal amusement industry relies on, as we know the challenges of finding reliable U.S. workers who want these temporary jobs, lifestyle and travel.”

After reading “Taken for a Ride,” I can understand why there are too few “reliable U.S. workers” who want these seasonal carnival jobs.   You live in squalor, you don’t earn a living wage, and risk being retaliated against for complaining about your working conditions.  Why do some industries insist it’s OK to subject guest workers to these situations?


  1. #1 G
    February 22, 2013

    “Jobs Americans won’t do” really means “jobs Americans won’t do _at that wage level_.” It’s called a _price signal in a market_, and it means the price (the wage rate) has to _rise_ to attract more _supply_.

    What these cannibal er uh carnival executives want is some kind of price-protectionism against market forces. Someone needs to start slinging the ferocious rhetoric at them, calling them communists or whatever else might stick, and educating them (and the public) about supply & demand.

    What’s also needed are some high-profile prosecutions with prison sentences. Tiny high quality audio/vldeo recorders are cheap enough now that it should be possible to hand out a bunch of ‘em to these workers in order to bring in the evidence needed. At minimum it would make a good _60 Minutes_ piece, preferably with a subtext of “would you trust food prepared by people working under these conditions?”