$500 Million Carnival Industry Depends on Mexican Laborers Paid Below Minimum Wage

A recent Reuters report exposed the $500 million per year U.S. carnival business as a high-risk industry for forced labor and exploitation. The report focuses on former circus performer James Judkins, who secured visas and job placement for almost 4,000 Mexican carnival workers in 2015 alone—facilitating the employment of more than half of the foreign workers operating in over 150 traveling carnivals.

Judkins works with a Mexican recruiter who seeks out young Mexican men looking for seasonal employment in the United States. The men receive a fixed weekly net wage of $316.22, regardless of how many hours they work. They live in communal trailers with very few amenities, some for up to six months.

Brokers like Judkins oversee the visa process and transport workers to job sites. They play a critical role in sustaining the carnival industry, which relies heavily on cheap labor. In addition to supplying workers, Judkins also lobbies legislators on labor regulation, helps address the workers’ personal and legal issues, and transports workers through dangerous areas of Mexico on the way to the United States.

Many of these workers come under the H-2B visa program. The H-2B visa allows foreign workers to come to the United States temporarily to work for a specified employer. Workers are tied to that specified employer and have little recourse for harsh treatment or meager pay; quitting would require them to return home.

An October 2015 report by the Christian Science Monitor reveals that carnival owners have threatened to deport workers if they complained about bug-infested trailers and wages as little as $1 to $2 per hour. The H-2B visa program arguably facilitates the exploitation of vulnerable workers in these instances, since the workers are essentially at the mercy of their employers once they arrive in the United States.

Judkins’ workers told Reuters that they were forced to work in unsafe conditions, sometimes for up to 20 hours a day—with no additional wages. But they were often reluctant to voice complaints because they might be blacklisted from other potential employers the following season.

“You can’t say anything because if you do, the recruiter will say, ‘You cause a lot of conflict, you won’t be going back,’” one worker told Reuters.

Judkins’ company, JKJ Workforce, was sued in 2014 for allegedly creating an illegal union to keep wages low for carnival workers. While federal law requires employers to pay workers minimum wage, employers can get around this obligation if a union representing the workers agrees to a lower rate.

The Association of Mobile Entertainment Workers, which claims to be a union representing carnival workers, agreed for workers to be paid weekly instead of hourly. The union’s questionable stance on worker pay, as well as the fact that there are several of Judkins’ associates on its board, caused workers’ rights advocates to accuse Judkins of creating an illegal union to prevent workers from receiving a fair wage.

In November 2015, the union agreed to reimburse $25,000 in dues and fees to members per a settlement with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In December, the NLRB settled with 33 carnival industry employers who agreed to pay workers $37,000 in fees and dues that had been deducted from their weekly wages. Judkins maintains that the workers wanted the union.

Revising the H-2B visa program would allow employees more autonomy to speak up against exploitative conditions. For more information on how to dismantle the business of human trafficking, check out our blueprint.

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Published on January 20, 2016

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