September 3, 2015 / 1:08 AM / 2 years ago

Could TripAdvisor-style ratings save migrant workers from slavery?

BOGOR, Indonesia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Mexican migrant paid a recruiter thousands of dollars for work in the United States, only to endure slavery, time in jail and finally deportation.

To make sure others did not fall prey to the same man, the migrant wrote a review of the recruiter on Contratados.org, a site for migrants from Mexico working in the United States.

The site, which means "hired" in Spanish, is described by the founding labor rights group as a Yelp or TripAdvisor for migrant workers, many of whom pay large fees to recruitment agencies but are then trapped in abusive employment - exploited, unpaid and in debt.

"This man tricked me... I had to work without pay for 2 months," the Mexican worker wrote in an anonymous posting on the site.

"He promised me a tourist visa and finally he gave me a false visa stuck on my passport for which he charged me 35,000 pesos ($2,000). At the border, I was detained and I was put in jail. I was in jail for 3 days and after that I was deported."

Rachel Micah-Jones of the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM), the Center for Migrant Rights, for workers in Mexico and the United States, which launched Contratados in September last year, said the site lets migrant workers rate their experience of recruiters or employers online, by voicemail or by text message.

Last year more than 130,000 Mexicans received temporary employment visas to work in the United States, and she said she hoped the site would help workers avoid being duped, exploited or charged illegal recruitment fees.

"They're leaving messages warning of recruiters that charge excessive fees, or fraudulent recruiters, bad housing conditions, poor conditions in general," Micah-Jones, CDM's founder and executive director, told activists and trade union organizers at a recent migrant labor conference in Indonesia.

Micah-Jones is one of many advocates worldwide trying to end recruitment fees, a practice around the world that often leads to bonded or forced labor.

An estimated 232 million people migrated abroad for work in 2013, according to the United Nations, which has noted growing concern over fraudulent recruitment practices.

A recent survey across 12 countries in Asia and the Middle East - key nations for supplying and seeking overseas workers - found that 77 percent of migrant workers had paid recruitment fees averaging more than $1,300.

Nepali migrants, with a monthly salary of $300, pay up to $1,500 to work in the Middle East, while other South Asians pay up to $7,000, said Tatcee Lorena Macabuag, of the Migrant Forum in Asia, the NGO network that conducted the survey and secretariat for an open working group on recruitment reform.

"Can you imagine where the migrant will get the money to pay these fees?" Macabuag said, calling for "ethical recruitment" in which employers pay all costs for migration.

HOMES AS COLLATERAL FOR LOANS

Many migrants sell property or use it as collateral to get loans for these fees, making it difficult to leave abusive employers for fear of losing their money, property and jobs.

Elizabeth Tang, general secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation, said that among domestic workers in Hong Kong, all those from Indonesia and 80 percent of those from the Philippines hade paid recruitment agencies for their jobs.

"The moment they arrive, they are already heavily indebted, so they have to give up a lot of rights because they have to keep the job to have money to pay the recruiters," Tang said.

Many Mexicans go to work on farms in the United States through the so-called H-2A temporary visa program for agricultural workers.

Sarah Fox, the U.S. State Department's special representative for international labor affairs, said the United States has banned employers or their agents from seeking or receiving recruitment fees for temporary visa programs.

But she acknowledged such bans are difficult to enforce.

"It's easy enough to say no recruitment fees, but these agencies can be very creative in coming up with all kinds of other sorts of charges that they don't call recruitment fees," Fox told the conference.

For migrant workers, there is a "strong disincentive" to complain about illegal recruitment fees because they could lose their jobs or visas, Micah-Jones said, adding that Contratados is one way her organization helps keep migrants informed.

With hundreds of people logging in each day, Contratados crowdsources migrants' reviews and combines the information with publicly available data on certification and enforcement.

Workers can then search the reviews to see which agencies, recruiters or employers are deemed safe, and which have hired workers who complain of verbal, physical or sexual abuse.

While the site currently focuses on Mexican workers going to the United States on temporary visas, Micah-Jones hopes to expand the site beyond North America.

"We would love to partner with groups in other regions who are interested in making this platform and technology available to migrant workers in their migration streams," she said.

Reporting by Alisa Tang, additional reporting by Anastasia Moloney in Bogota, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org

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