Indentured Servitude: The Fight to End Recruitment Abuse in Mexico

Imagine this scenario: you're the head of a household in rural Mexico where the local economy collapsed along with the peso and the jobs never came back. The weakening peso eroded your savings, your purchasing power, but most importantly your dignity. And for being poor, the principal at the public school charges you a tax to keep your kids from the rest of the class--he knows you can't pay it. But you do. You're determined to give your kids an education though you can barely keep food on the table.

You have three boys and their appetites are insatiable. You take up a second job washing cars. And then a third job cleaning houses. And then--as is inevitable with all young boys--one of them gets hurt. You borrow money to bring in a doctor but the doctor is in the next town where there is internet and hot water. You curse yourself for not moving earlier like your brother, like your uncles who left for work in the US. But your family is here, your life is here. This is where you are from. You swore to yourself you'd never go undocumented into the US. Like so many transmigrants, you swore you would do things the right way. The legal way. And then one day, someone knocks on your door.

He's a recruiter, he says. Someone who promises you a visa into the US and good work too. He shows you a mock visa. He lets you touch it even. You rub the ink over the letters--United States of America. And suddenly, here's a man who promises to solve all your problems. And legally too.

The man says to you that you can have it all--the visa, a contract for work, your dignity--for only a small fee, which wipes out the savings you have. Pesos scraped together over the years. But the man assures you this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. So, you take it. But the man never comes back.

Stories like these are common in rural Mexico where recruitment abuse is big business and one of the more common mechanisms of exploitation used to take advantage of workers in communities with limited access to information and resources. Oftentimes, those who do make it to the U.S. work for limited pay or no pay at all, falling into lives of indentured servitude under the very recruiters who contracted them who also charge workers for their H-2B visas, which are illegal to sell under U.S. law. Oftentimes, worker's passports are held from them or destroyed altogether to prevent them from going back home. And they become stuck in the U.S., undocumented against their will.

There's a movement happening in Mexico to fight such abuse. El Centro de Los Derechos Migrante, based in Mexico City, has launched Contratados, a program specifically directed at H-2 and J-1 visa workers to shield them from recruitment abuse. What's fascinating about Contratados is that the program is an interactive website and hotline that helps workers avoid exploitation, but the program also uses other tools to keep workers informed: comic books and audio novelas among other interactive means to help workers navigate the recruitment and employment process in the United States. Similar to websites and apps like Yelp, Contratados workers can rate and review recruiters and employers to bring some transparency to their decisions.

Check out the video below, directed by Mexico City based Lindsay Van Dyke, of a true story about recruitment abuse: