A trip to the carnival is the quintessential American summer pastime. But for workers who run the show, the hard labor of making our holidays carefree can be shockingly grim.
A lawsuit lauched last week by two migrant workers illustrates the ugly side of the leisure industry. Over a period of several years, while park patrons enjoyed the fun and rides of the Butler Amusements, the migrants say they were systematically exploited. The suit, filed in a California federal district court, lists them only as John Doe 1 and John Doe 2, because, as is typical in this sector, they fear retaliation from labor recruiters in their hometowns in Mexico.
A decade ago, the workers paid a recruiter hundreds of dollars just for the privilege of arranging a coveted job in the United States. But, they say, in approximately seven years working for Butler, they were consistently underpaid for their drudge work—setting up, breaking down, transporting and maintaining machinery and equipment at industry giant’s numerous fair sites, which stretched across California, Arizona, Nevada and Idaho. On a typical day they toiled 10 to 14 hours for wages that amounted to about $5 an hour, they say.
These carnival workers were not the undocumented migrants of the “underground economy” as depicted in the news. They were legally hired, thanks to the federal H-2B visa program for temporary foreign labor. In other words, the lawsuit underscores the fact that even with official papers, many “guestworkers” have virtually no power to resist abuse.
According to a recent report by Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM)—the advocacy group that, along with Legal Aid Society–Employment Law Center, is representing the Butler workers—the fair and carnival industry relies on the H-2B visas to fill slots for exhausting, often hazardous seasonal work in a business built on itinerant entertainment and fast profits. Under the influence of apowerful hospitality and leisure industry lobby, Congress has maintained a large H-2B visa program, currently capped at 66,000 H-2B visas annually, to staff hotels, resorts and entertainment facilities. While the leisure sectors in general are fueled by a trasient, precarious workforce, the industry of seasonal amusement businesses like summer carnival companies, which in 2011 secured about 5,000 H-2B visas, mostly from Mexico, benefit from especially lax oversight under federal labor law.
The cheap thrills come at a high price for workers. Employers often withhold or underpay wages, or pay out only in lump sums, and workers could end up earning under $300 a week. Wages are further undercut by massive debts owed to predatory labor recruiters in Mexico. One worker interviewed in the report said a workday could run as long as 24 hours straight if he had to break down and set up a ride. Another worker lamented, “We couldn’t even support ourselves, let alone send money home, which is why we came.”
For traveling carnival shows, the migrants pass through various states with different labor regulations, which poses an obstacle to monitoring employers and enforcing workplace protections.