Every year, more than 100,000 Mexican migrant workers are recruited to travel to the United States on temporary employment visas (and many more arrive unofficially). They find themselves with little ability to research whether promised wages and working conditions will actually be delivered. In some cases, fake job recruiters even collect application fees from prospective workers, only to disappear without a trace.
"These prospective migrant workers have a great necessity to get work in the U.S.," says Sarah Farr, a project coordinator with Centro de los Derechos del Migrante or CDM. "There’s really no information available to them that allows them to verify if this is a real job offer or not."
To help level the playing field, CDM created Contratados, a platform launched last week to let migrant workers share Yelp-style ratings and reviews of their experiences with different recruiters and employers.
The idea evolved out of a Facebook page run by a fraudulent recruitment agency. The agency had been routed out, but scam victims reappropriated the comments section to share information about their experiences with other employers and recruiting agencies.
"This Facebook page had since been abandoned by whoever had been administrating it and had since been used as a community bulletin board where workers were sharing information," says Farr.
CDM, a non-profit advocacy group based in Mexico City, found that while prospective migrant workers often don’t have computer-based Internet access at home, many do have at least rudimentary web connections through cellphones or at Internet cafes.
"What we found was that most people, especially the younger generation, had access to basic Internet via either a pretty basic feature phone—often times it wasn’t a smartphone—or via Internet cafes," says Farr.
Along with adding reviews through the web, workers can share their experience by leaving a voice message, sending a text, or passing along a photo. To enable this, CDM used Vojo, a voice and SMS storytelling tool built by developers from MIT’s Center for Civic Media.
"It allows you to submit stories via text messages, and you can tag them and geocode them," says Farr. "Also users can submit information, say [if they’re facing] recruitment fraud, or want to take a picture of a recruitment agency and say something about what they know."
CDM hopes to add the ability to access reviews and ratings via voice or text, as well.
There are only a few submissions on the site right now, and the group is using more traditional methods of outreach to promote the service. They've been contacting lawyers who assist migrant workers in the U.S. and broadcasting on cross-border radio stations popular with the target audience, as well as producing comic books and other educational material to teach workers about their rights.
The U.S. Department of Labor has expressed interest in using the reviews to target inspections and enforcement efforts, Farr says, and CDM is hopeful that the reviews will also be useful in motivating employers using recruiters that charge workers exorbitant fees to put pressure on them to change, she says.
"You can’t use that argument of, ‘I didn’t know,’" she says.