OpenGov Voices: Migrant workers are making government information more transparent
Migrants and advocates are organizing online to make government information transparent in order to protect workers’ rights.
This month, with the generous support of the Sunlight Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM), a transnational migrant rights organization, is launching a new organizing and transparency hub — Contratados.org. Contratados puts unpublished government information online in an interactive map, where it becomes a powerful tool for workers to protect their rights.
Migrants are using this valuable information — obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests to the Departments of Labor, Homeland Security and State — to make important decisions about whether to migrate. The information on the Contratados site includes the names, locations and industries of U.S. businesses that employ internationally recruited workers. It also includes information about government investigations and lawsuits against businesses that have violated workers’ rights.
Migrants and advocates using the site can add their own Yelp-style reviews of U.S. businesses and the labor recruiters working for those businesses. They can see links between U.S. businesses and recruiters in Mexico — relationships that they never would have seen before. That helps make the labor supply chains of businesses transparent. And transparency, in turn, helps workers decide which businesses — and which recruiters — to trust.
The U.S. government does not publish a real-time registry of businesses or recruiters participating in the temporary visa programs. That puts migrants in a difficult position: If a recruiter in Mexico offers a job in the United States, it is difficult to know whether to trust the recruiter’s promises.
Contratados is filling that information vacuum. It gives workers exactly the kind of information that Martín Dávila, a migrant community leader in Mexico, would have wanted before he went to work in the United States.
In 2007, Dávila, a construction worker who was then in his late forties, was recruited to work on an H-2B temporary work visa in a traveling carnival. In Zacatecas, Dávila was made to pay a substantial recruitment fee — more than $350, an amount that would take weeks to repay from the wages that he would eventually earn. When he decided to pay the fee, he was taking a risk. He had no way of knowing whether the recruiter’s promises were real, or whether the job offer or carnival business even existed.
When he arrived in the United States, the job turned out to be real. But the working conditions at Dreamland Amusements were far from what the recruiter in Zacatecas had promised. The carnival tried to force Dávila and his coworkers to hand over their visas and passports. Some of his coworkers gave up their identity documents, fearing that if they did not, they would be fired. Dávila refused.
The pay was illegally low. Dávila and his coworkers were paid a flat weekly wage no matter how many hours they worked. Dávila feared for his and his coworkers’ safety.
The work at Dreamland was dangerous: Sometimes Dávila and his coworkers would work for a full 36 hours without a break to sleep and they received no training.
Eventually, Dávila and his coworker, leaders of what was then the newly formed Migrant Defense Committee (a migrant leadership initiative that CDM supports), had reached a breaking point. They were exhausted and were earning a wage that amounted to less than four dollars per hour. Dávila and another committee leader organized their coworkers to stop working. They left their jobs and returned to Mexico.
With CDM’s support in Mexico, they connected with a legal services provider in New York and then with the New York Attorney General’s office (NYAG). Dávila and his fellow Migrant Defense Committee leader participated in an investigation by NYAG, leading to a major settlement victory for Dávila and his coworkers.
As we developed Contratados, Dávila organized other migrants in Zacatecas to co-design the site. With their suggestions and vision, Contratados is now a powerful tool for migrants to use and prevent abuse. Migrants deciding whether to take a job can now see government information in a visual, useful way. They can read information about employers’ and recruiters’ practices, so that that they can avoid working with businesses that have a history of rights violations.
The way migrants like Dávila are recruited reveals a lot about the future of work for all of us. Migrant and U.S. workers are increasingly taking on contingent work, temporary jobs that they do not expect to keep. In the new economy, workers are navigating opaque labor supply chains, involving complicated webs of transnational staffing agencies and recruiters.
This year, more than 800,000 migrants — roughly the population of San Francisco — will be recruited internationally to work in the United States under temporary visa programs. Internationally recruited workers teach in public schools, run carnival rides, pick crab meat, care for children and cut grass. And in the United States, as of 2005 — the last time that the U.S. Department of Labor published information on contingent and alternative working arrangements — up to 14.8 percent of U.S. workers were in contingent and alternative jobs.
We see Contratados as a crucial tool that makes government information transparent and useful for workers, a valuable transparency resource for the future of work. In the future, we hope to build Contratados into a platform that other recruited and contingent workers can use. We would invite your feedback and suggestions. Please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kristin Greer Love is an attorney and the Director of Strategy and Development for Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. — The Center for Migrant Rights, a transnational migrant rights organization. Kristin is a graduate of the University of Chicago and the University of Chicago Law School.
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