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Mexico's first 'union' for guest workers fights abuses at home and in US

Formed in 2013, the coalition, recognized by the Mexican government, gives workers a platform to demand solutions to issues like recruitment fraud and trafficking. But it's faced a backlash. Part 10 in a series. 

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    Mexican citizens drive a tractor bearing the Mexican flag at a nursery in Huron, Ohio, as part of the federal H-2A agricultural guest-worker program.
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For five years, Gabriel Ramirez worked in the US operating machinery in sweet-potato processing plants and on construction sites as a temporary guest worker. But starting in 2006, high recruitment fees meant he was priced out of the opportunity.

“Recruiters were asking me for 7,000, 11,000 pesos [$640 to $1,000] to put my name on a list,” says Mr. Ramirez. It’s an illegal but common practice among recruiters and people tasked by US employers to gather workers for each season. “I didn’t have that kind of money,” he says.

But this year, something changed: Ramirez says recruiters didn’t want a dime.

“I asked one, ‘How much are you charging?’ And the recruiter told me ‘No, no, look. We can’t charge,’ ” he says. “He didn’t want the attention of the coalition.”

Ramirez is referring to a group of neighbors in his coastal town of Topolobampo, Sinaloa, and a few surrounding communities, who in 2013 came together to form Mexico’s first ever guest-worker coalition – essentially a union of transnational migrant laborers.

Roughly 50 workers who had for years traveled to the US on low-skill work visas teamed up to gain legal recognition from the Mexican government. Now they can air complaints and demand solutions to issues like recruitment fraud, labor abuse, trafficking, and other violations. One of the group’s first “wins” was the successful push for a government investigation into a recruitment firm last year, which resulted in company fines and a strong message to other recruiters.

Workers that have to borrow money before they even arrive on the job in the US are often more susceptible to workplace abuses and human trafficking, according to the US Government Accountability Office. Nearly six in 10 Mexicans reported paying upfront fees in order to get a job as a temporary guest worker in the US, according to a 2013 survey by the labor rights organization Centro de los Derechos del Migrante.

“For decades, workers were coming home from the US with stories of abuse, poor living conditions, withheld wages, and other violations,” says Olivia Fernanda Guzmán, a coalition member who peeled and packed shrimp, crawfish, and crab at three US companies over 18 years. Her employers required overtime without pay and she was frequently squeezed into trailers built to house four people with up to 15 other women.

“We didn’t know US laws; we didn’t know how to speak [out] against a precarious working situation,” Ms. Guzmán says. Open meetings and educational initiatives via the coalition are helping to change that.

“I want to create a precedent,” Guzmán says. “To let [employers and recruiters] know we are organized and that we are going to defend our rights.”

Rich Clabaugh

Paying for jobs that don't exist

Starting in 2011, Guzmán and her neighbors worked closely with a Mexico-City based NGO, ProDESC, and the US-based National Guest Workers Alliance to document abuses suffered by Topolobampo migrant workers. There are about 6,000 people living in the community, and an estimated 50 percent of adults travel to the US on temporary visas each year. Most work in seafood industries in Louisiana and North Carolina.

By 2013, the Sinaloa Temporary Workers’ Coalition had formed, with the mission of defending the rights of guest workers here and abroad.

The group had plenty of personal experience. Member Manuela Leyva took home less than 15 percent of the wage promised to her when she worked in a Louisiana crab plant in 2007. Some years she not only paid for her visa, travel, and safety equipment but also paid a small fee to line the pockets of a recruiter in Sinaloa. As a result she made as little as $50 a week. Others reported being asked to “loan” recruiters thousands of pesos before their name was added to an employment list, or paying only to realize they’d been duped.

Last year, when the coalition learned about 15 local men who paid $200 a piece to secure jobs that actually never existed, they used their status to meet with Mexican officials, calling for an investigation into the recruiting agency. The ministry of labor has the power to launch inspections of recruitment companies, yet this was one of the first times they exercised that authority, according to a partially USAID-funded Solidarity Center report. The search revealed 27 violations of the law at the Monterrey-based company, and resulted in fines totaling more than 48,000 pesos ($3,500).

Today, there are signs posted in restaurants and on street corners in Topolobampo warning recruiters not to solicit fees. “I think they’re listening,” says Mr. Ramirez, who joined the coalition because he wanted to return to the US on a visa to support his family without facing the “injustice of recruitment practices.”

“We’re hopeful that the coalition in Topolobampo can serve as a model for other large [migrant] sending communities” in Mexico, says Elena Villafuerte Mata, who works on transnational justice projects for ProDESC.

Coalition workers blacklisted

But not all the waves created by the coalition have been positive. Some workers have been blacklisted by their former employers or recruiters for joining – or even associating with – the coalition, community members say. 

Earlier this year, when neighbors reported that they hadn’t been contacted to return to jobs they’d held for years, Ramirez says he felt immense guilt. “I thought it was the coalition’s fault,” he says. It later became clear that a number of factories simply weren’t taking foreign workers at all this year, a bittersweet relief, he says.

Despite the challenges, Jennifer Gordon, a law professor at Fordham Law School in New York, says part of the importance of a homegrown coalition is to take the Mexican government to task. Typically, groups focused on improving guest worker rights are based in the US, appealing to the US government for change. 

“There’s a blanket dismissal of the Mexican government as incompetent and corrupt,” Ms. Gordon says. “But that has the effect of letting the Mexican government off the hook for things it should or can be held accountable for.”

Guest workers are often viewed as occupying a grey zone in their home countries: They are leaving the country for work, so what place does their government have in getting involved in labor abuses? Some officials in Mexico and Central America have told labor rights organizations like ProDESC and the New York-based Global Workers Justice Alliance that they fear if they intervene, they could in fact make their nationals less appealing to employers in the US.

Guzmán, who in 2014 says her boss told her she wasn’t invited back to the plant where she’d worked for the past 13 years due to her participation with the coalition, remembers visiting the Mexican consulate in New Orleans to talk about the abuses faced by many Mexican guest workers in the United States. She remembers the official was shocked to hear her testimony.

“He thought that just by having a visa, [guest workers in the US] had all the ease in the world,” Guzmán says. “He thought we were living like kings.”

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