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 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?’”