The Plight of Migrant Workers in Our Own Backyard
Workers at the Saratoga Race Track make up a 12,700-person base of the $1.4 billion horse industry in New York, according to the American Horse Council—and that statistic only covers full-time workers. Additional suppliers, employees, horse owners, volunteers, and service providers raise the number of workers in the state industry to about 152,000. As is the case throughout the country in the horse racing industry, numerous workers here in Saratoga face poor pay and mistreatment.
Ricardo Becero is one such worker. In May, Becero left his home in Michoacán, Mexico and traveled, for the first time, to the United States. Leaving behind a wife and two young children, Becero explained that he “came here to move [his] family forward.” On the backstretch, where horses are kept to be trained and groomed, Becero’s day starts at 5:30 in the morning and continues until he gets a break for lunch at 11:30. At 3:00, he returns to work until the end of the day, sometime after 4:30. He repeats this routine seven days a week.
Unfortunately, Becero was injured working in the kitchen. Hot oil spilled on his foot, leaving him seriously burned and unable to work. As a result, he is now without a paycheck. Workers’ compensation insurance typically supplies workers injured on the job with benefits, but the trainer who Becero works for has not paid him for the time he has been injured. Such a practice may be illegal, but Becero feels he has no power to argue against it—for he is not a US citizen. When asked about his family, Becero said, “I just keep thinking about how they’re doing…with my injury, I haven’t been able to provide for them. I worry a lot.”
Even without his injury, Becero’s paycheck has never added up very quickly. New York labor laws require employers to pay a minimum wage of $8.75 an hour. Becero is paid for 49 hours a week, and after deductions for federal income taxes, Social Security, and other benefits, his weekly paycheck amounts to just over $330 a week. Becero, as a non-US citizen, will never see the benefits of his tax dollars.
According to Diana Barnes, a Visiting Professor of Border Studies at Skidmore College, there are legal routes for migrant workers to reclaim their money, but they are extremely convoluted. The majority of workers do not know about the possibility of getting their tax dollars refunded, and even if they did, it would be difficult for them to navigate through the process.
Becero came to the US on an H-2B visa, a temporary work visa for nonagricultural workers. On the backstretch—where, according to Barnes, an estimated 75% of workers are undocumented—Becero’s legal status is atypical. The Saratoga Race Track, which generates $237 million annually, according to the Saratoga County Industrial Development Agency, relies heavily on undocumented workers to clean the stalls and staff the cafeteria, among other tasks.
Life for workers at the Saratoga Race Track is far from glamorous. According to Professor Barnes, while the workers are provided with housing, they are required to secure their own food. Workers reside in small rooms, shared with up to two other people. In the summer heat, without air conditioning, these dorms heat up quickly. Becero almost never goes into town, for Saratoga is expensive, and he came here only to help his family. He does not treat himself, choosing instead to save as much of his paycheck as possible.
Issues of immigration may seem far away, but that is certainly not the case. Undocumented workers are everywhere; they are both valuable members of the American workforce and valuable human beings who deserve a better quality of life—in cities like ours and throughout the US.