New Website Contratados.org Brings Transparency Where It’s Lacking: The International Labor Recruitment Industry
For most foreign workers who come to work temporarily in the United States, paying private labor recruitment agencies or individual recruiters (also known as foreign labor contractors or FLCs) in order to find and get a job—as a landscaper, teacher, computer programmer, or almost any other occupation—has become an inescapable part of the process. Recruiters connect workers abroad—who may sometimes be in remote locations and rural villages—with employers in the United States for a fee, which is either collected from the employer, the worker, or both. As the Migration Policy Institute has noted, this cross-border and cross-jurisdiction contracting activity “creates many opportunities for exploitation and abuse.” The UN International Labour Office’s Director-General Guy Ryder has gone further, calling this market “anarchic and in need of proper coordinated regulation.”
The principal reasons that the recruitment market is “anarchic” are its almost total lack of transparency, and the absence of any regulation to ensure fairness and accountability. One result is that migrants can be charged unreasonably high fees to get hired for short-term jobs. The migrants either have to get loans from friends and family, or take out mortgages on their home or land, or borrow the money directly from recruiters at exorbitant interest rates, which leaves the migrant workers heavily indebted.
In most temporary foreign worker programs, workers don’t have the right to switch employers, regardless of whether the employer steals their wages, confiscates their passports, or locks them inside of a factory. Because the employer controls the visa, if the migrant worker decides to quit or escape, he or she becomes instantly deportable. This arrangement leaves workers vulnerable to debt bondage. Countless examples can be cited of abuse and human trafficking perpetrated by recruiters and facilitated by the international labor recruitment system.
Take for example, Filipino teachers with H-1B visas in Louisiana, or Guatemalan forestry workers in the Southeastern United States and Indian welders working on offshore oil rigs with H-2B visas, who were all in debt bondage to their recruiters and had tens of thousands of dollars in wages stolen for questionable and illegal “fees” and “services.” And this isn’t just a problem in the United States—it’s a worldwide phenomenon. Consider the example of Qatar in the Middle East: A report from the Qatar Foundation found that the “system of recruiting and hiring semi- and unskilled expats to work in Qatar is riddled with ‘endemic corruption’ and unethical practices that result in trafficking, debt bondage and forced labor.” The powerless workers recruited to work in Qatar from Bangladesh, the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and India have often ended up in deplorable conditions. Amnesty International reported “widespread exploitation of migrant workers” who were not paid the wages they were promised by recruiters, not paid for months at a time or sometimes not paid at all, and who were required to work “excessive (sometimes extreme) hours” in unsafe conditions, and were housed in “squalid accommodation[s].” As The Guardian reported, for too many, the outcome is even more disastrous than that. In just the past two years, nearly 400 Nepalese workers have died in Qatar while working on construction projects related to the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
But these are only the few examples the public knows about because they were reported in the media. Migrant workers around the world deal with these sorts of abuses every day, but too often, justice is unattainable, especially when a recruiter is not located in the same country as the job.
So where can foreign workers abroad seeking employment in the United States learn more about the recruitment process, and find out if a particular recruiter or agency is a legitimate business entity with legitimate jobs in the United States? (Or if it’s a scam like this one?) Until now, information has been virtually unobtainable except through word of mouth. But a newly launched website, Contratados.org, has the promise to bring a much needed dose of sunlight to the recruitment process, and to shine it on recruiters themselves.
Contratados.org (which translated from Spanish means “contracted” or “hired”) is the brainchild of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM, or Center for Migrant Rights), a non-profit organization with offices in Mexico and Baltimore that defends and advocates for temporary foreign workers. CDM has created a useful tool where current and past workers can post written or spoken reviews of their current or former employers and recruiters, and rate them, not unlike the popular review site Yelp.com. Current and future workers can access this information and valuable advice on whether or not they should trust a particular recruiter or employer, and learn whether the worker had any complaints. The site also contains “Know Your Rights” comics and audio dialogues, in which interlocutors discuss recruitment fraud, the minimum wage, health and safety, and other issues. At present the site only covers “low-wage labor recruitment along the Mexico-U.S. migrant stream” (mores specifically, workers in Mexico and jobs in the United States), but considering that the vast majority of low-wage workers in two of the U.S.’s main temporary foreign worker programs (H-2A and H-2B) come from Mexico, CDM has appropriately targeted this effort.
Contratados.org constitutes a big leap forward for transparency and fairness for internationally recruited temporary foreign workers. I hope that immigrant and worker advocates in the United States and Mexico will spread the word to their constituents and urge workers to use it and help grow the database of recruiter and employer information. It won’t end all abuses in the international labor recruitment industry, but for some Mexican migrant workers, being better informed could prevent them from ever becoming victims.