A 'Yelp' for Migrant Workers: Local nonprofit's tool spreads the word about abusive and deceitful employers and recruiters
By EDWARD ERICSON JR.
Feb 10, 2015 | 10:26 PM
Migrants working legally in the U.S. on temporary visas can end up as virtual slaves. They can’t change jobs, they’re often paid less than minimum wage for 80 or more hours a week, and they can’t usually return to the U.S. to sue their employer in court—there’s no visa program for that.
But in a very modest office above an eyeglass shop on Charles Street, a few women are working to help migrant workers improve their chances of getting a fair shake. They put up a website.
Contratados.org launched in October as a resource for workers—mostly from Mexico—to anonymously rate the employers and recruiters who bring them to the states for temporary jobs under the H-2B, H-2A, and J-1 visa programs. It bills itself as "the Yelp for migrant workers."
"We found that there are a number of major problems in the recruitment of international migrant workers," says Rachel Micah-Jones, founder and executive director of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante Inc., sometimes shortened to CDM, the nonprofit that led development of the new website.
The Baltimore-based center employs a staff of 14 in three offices on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Since 2005 it has provided advice, support, and legal services to migrant laborers, recovering more than $5 million in unpaid wages, according to the organization's website. It also tries to educate Congress about the H-2 visa system it created and has not reformed or improved for decades. The new project, contratados.org, has been in the works since 2012, Micah-Jones says.
Information is power, and the internet makes information freely available. But most migrant workers have no idea what they are in for when they pay a job recruiter a couple thousand pesos for the promise of a crab-picking, farming, or carnival job in the states.
The recruiters are barred by both U.S. and Mexican law from collecting fees from workers, but the practice is widespread. The complaints come when the jobs don't materialize, or the employer rips off the workers or abuses them—things that happen often.
"Recruitment problems tend to lead to abuse on the job," Micah-Jones says. The workers don't have access to basic information: Is the job real? Can this recruiter or employer be trusted? What are the travel conditions like? What are the lodging conditions like? "So we would get calls to the office," Micah-Jones says. "A guy would call up and say, 'Juan Hernandez is recruiting for mushroom farming in Pennsylvania—is that for real or not?'"
In many cases the staff did not know. But the world of migrant labor recruiting, like most sub-specialties in the shadow economy, is small. If enough experienced workers could tell of their experiences, good and bad, in a searchable format online, Micah-Jones thought, then workers everywhere could get the information they need.
And maybe the bad actors would change their ways, or be driven out of the business.
"We started from scratch with a group of workers who co-designed the site to meet their needs," Micah-Jones says. They had to decide by what devices it would be accessed. Most migrants do not have smartphones, so they went with a website that could also be accessed like voice mail. Much of their internet access is done in internet cafes which charge a few pesos an hour for fairly slow web service. That meant the videos Micah-Jones originally envisioned were scrapped—too much bandwidth. She also scrapped an interactive map of the players in the employment side of the equation—although such a map and database can be found in another section of the organization's website. (It was built from public documents in order to help legislators understand what is happening in the migrant labor program, she says.)
What did get in to contratados.org are audio novelas—short dramas telling workers what to watch out for, what to expect, and who to contact in case of trouble as they uproot their lives to try to make a living here doing seasonal work. And they can listen to information about their rights and follow along with comic-book-style illustrations. "It really resonated with workers," Micah-Jones says.
One section also has posters the workers can print out (if they can get access to a printer) and post around work or living sites. In this way the project helps to spread its own news.
And there is a way to hear the words of workers who call in with reports about this or that recruiter or employer.
With exceptions only for obvious spam, CDM staff does not alter or edit the site, Micah-Jones says—for an important legal reason. It has to be like a bulletin board or else the organization could be held liable for the content, like this newspaper is responsible for what goes on its website. A libel suit could ruin CDM, and as a practical matter the nonprofit's tiny staff could never hope to keep up with all the postings as the site grows.
Working on the website, Micah-Jones cues up a review. A man's voice comes on and, obviously speaking from an outdoor location, says, "Jose and Alejandro are lying. They are not recruiting for a job. There is no job."
Many of the workers know their recruiters only by first name. They can post a name and location where that person works from, but getting the identities solid is not possible. "If it is very clear who the actor is, you can put them on the actor profile," Micah-Jones says.
The site sorts by location and name, and color-codes by their function. An recruitment agency, for example, is pink. A recruiter is green and an employer is blue.
She pulls up another posting. A man says he was recruited and hired for a job, but got sick so he went home to Mexico, and now he is locked out of the H-2 visa system and can't get another job in the U.S.
In the H-2 system, Micah-Jones says, employees can report workers who "abandon" the job. That puts the worker on a list (the man on the site says it's a blacklist, but Micah-Jones doesn't use that term). In Mexico, the consulate has access to that information, and can give the worker a visa or not—at their discretion. "All they have is this data point, that they absconded," Micah-Jones says.
She pulls up a recruiter who has three reviews. The first reviewer says he would not work with him again. The second says "he tricked me"—gave the man a fake visa, charged 35,000 pesos (about $3,000) for it, and the guy was caught with a fake visa and so is locked out of the H-2 system basically forever.
The Contratados site—just four months old—is starting to fill out as more workers discover it, and as more recruiters in Mexico go back to work. "It is high season now," Micah-Jones says.
The work makes enemies. "Yesterday I was in Boston, responding to a subpoena," Micah-Jones says. "A fair company is trying to get a survey we did for a report we put out called 'Taken For a Ride.'"
Many traveling carnivals use the H-2B program to recruit workers, she says, and many of them are pretty bad. The 68-page report was published two years ago in cooperation with the American University Washington College of Law Immigrant Justice Clinic. It reported 80-hour weeks for a salary of $300—less than $4 an hour.
The people profiting from this arrangement are not pleased with CDM.
"Our former deputy director received death threats," Micah-Jones says. "There were holes drilled in our back door in the Mexico City office."
Micah-Jones hopes that, with worker input and the help of Research Action Design, the worker-owned web design collective that built the site, contratados.org will expand. "We want to develop a mobile-friendly version," she says.
CDM now has to deal with two competing goals: growing the site and responding to the complaints of abuse.