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New ‘Yelp’ for Guest Workers in U.S. Challenges the Employer Power Dynamic

New ‘Yelp’ for Guest Workers in U.S. Challenges the Employer Power Dynamic

A flawed U.S. immigration system means workers are losing. Employers and recruiters of guest workers almost always hold all the power while workers themselves have very little information about future employment and living situations. But now there is a new online tool for migrant workers that will allow them to challenge this dynamic and make more informed decisions about migrating for work.

A new initiative called Contratados, which refers to being contracted under a temporary work program, aims to give workers more power in the recruitment process and makes sure employers and recruiters are held accountable for their actions. Spearheaded by Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM), a trans-national migrant worker center with offices in Mexico and the United States, Contratados features an interactive website, a hotline, pocket-sized know-your-rights comics, audio novelas and a transnational radio campaign designed to provide workers with resources to more securely navigate the recruitment and employment process.

Migrant workers recruited to work in the United States on guest worker visas routinely face well-documented forms of abuse and exploitation. This exploitation often begins at home, as workers take on enormous debt to pay high fees to recruitment firms for the privilege of securing a job, and many times the terms and condition of employment are misrepresented by such firms. The recruitment of workers takes place in an unregulated, lawless space that leaves workers vulnerable to mistreatment once in the United States, including fraud, abuse and intimidated by recruiters and employers and employer confiscation of travel documents. Further, guest workers are unable to change employers if they find themselves in an abusive situation, and those who do complain or attempt to organize face threats, blacklisting and physical coercion.

Most workers rely on word of mouth from community members, or the unconfirmed word of recruiters, when weighing the legitimacy of a temporary visa and job offer. In consultation with affected workers, CDM sought to create a sustainable and worker-driven tool for sharing this kind of information. Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the project, it features a platform for crowd-sourced information on employers and recruitment firms. Similar to, the online review tool and the accompanying hotline allows workers themselves to write reviews of recruiters and employers and collectively fill critical gaps in publicly available information about international labor recruitment.

By surveying workers on various aspects of the recruitment process and allowing for open reviews, workers can now share their experiences in a common space and help steer others toward responsible, scrupulous employers and recruiters and away from those with a reputation for abuse and exploitation. While its content is specifically directed to H-2 and J-1 workers from Mexico, it can be used by workers of all backgrounds and visa categories. Contratados also allows workers to access unified government data, public record information and user-generated reports in a single place, amplifying the power of worker-to-worker communication and collectively filling in gaps in publicly available information about international labor recruitment.

Increased recruitment transparency and employer and recruiter accountability are crucial to addressing pervasive abuse under U.S. guest worker programs and lifting wages in many industries reliant on immigrant workers. Without national legislation that creates a registry for recruitment firms, prohibits recruitment fees to workers and requires pre-departure disclosures about the terms and conditions of employment—similar to the historic law California passed this week regulating recruitment firms—hundreds of thousands of workers who come to the United States on temporary work visas each year will continue to be vulnerable to the exploitation. However, Contratados is a major development in the fight for transparency and worker protections in the recruitment process and U.S. guest worker visa system. 

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