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To fight scammers dangling US jobs, a 'Yelp' for Mexican migrant workers

After thousands of Mexicans were robbed of savings via illegal 'recruiting fees' for low-skilled jobs in the US, a nonprofit created a review website and app to keep potential migrant workers informed.

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    A US Border Patrol vehicle drives by the 18-foot-high steel barrier along the US-Mexico border at sunset in Brownsville, Texas, September 2, 2014.
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Adarely Ponce Hernandez watched closely as a job recruiter passed through her rural Mexican town of Chapulhuacán two years ago. The recruiter represented a company called Chamba Mexico and promised high wages for legal temporary work in the United States – an enticing offer in a region where nearly 80 percent of the population lives in poverty.

But Ms. Hernandez dealt with a headhunter like this one in the past – who stole nearly $200 from her in the form of recruiting fees. So, she decided to stay away from Chamba Mexico. It was a wise choice.

Not long after this recruiter left Chapulhuacan, the company shuttered its operations nationwide, and its employees disappeared. An estimated 5,000 Mexicans invested between $560 and $880, according to government reports, in hopes of securing a job that paid as much as $19 per hour.

“There are a lot of recruiters that arrive and deceive people,” Hernandez says. “They say that in order to get you out, you have to pay 1,000 pesos [$75] or 2,000 pesos [$150] to be put on a waiting list,” she says.

Although it’s illegal for recruiters to charge fees to prospective migrants, 58 percent of H-2 workers reported paying for the opportunity to be matched with a US employer, according to a report from Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM), a migrant advocacy organization based in Mexico City. So to help workers avoid scams, CDM has rolled out a website and smartphone app that intend to operate as a sort of Yelp for migrant workers, called Contratados.org.

A big market

In 2013, the US Department of State handed out some 131,700 H-2 visas for farm workers and low-skilled laborers in industries such as landscaping, forestry, and housekeeping. The overwhelming majority came from Mexico via guest worker programs, as they're commonly called. The jobs attached to these visas usually last less than a year, but can be extended for up to three consecutive years, or renewed, allowing a worker to come back annually.

The number of visas for guest workers could continue to grow if the comprehensive immigration bill, passed by the US Senate last year, is approved by the House of Representatives and signed by President Obama. The legislation would initially place a cap on the number of farm workers at 112,000, but also creates a new visa, which in five years could allow as many as 200,000 new temporary workers, depending on conditions in the job market. 

But an increase in temporary laborers would also likely mean an uptick in business for sometimes unscrupulous job recruiters in Mexico.

“Neither government is taking action in stopping these fees,” says Sarah Farr, a project coordinator at CDM. Sometimes these recruiters follow through on their promise of relatively lucrative work in the US, and sometimes they don’t. 

“Before the US government can even consider changing these programs, they need to address the severe lack of transparency and accountability [in the recruitment process]," Ms. Farr says. Farr says the US should set up a registry of certified recruiters that operate within the law.

Stopping scams

Until that happens, however, her organization is trying to fill the void with Contratados.org.

It was inspired by the Chamba Mexico case, Farr says. After that company closed down, victims used Chamba Mexico’s Facebook page as way to share information. Contratados.org will similarly serve as a forum for migrants to inform others about which recruiters operate above board.

Hernandez, who avoided the Chamba Mexico scam, plans to go back to a job in Louisiana for a crawfish company where she's worked seasonally for four years. Because she and her fellow guest workers are in direct contact with the boss there, she can bypass recruiters. 

“The boss is going to take care of the application process for me,” she says.

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