What is your organization’s mission?
Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM) is the first transnational migrant workers’ rights organization based in Mexico. Since its founding, CDM has been driven by its mission to improve the conditions of low-wage workers in the United States. CDM’s binational, multilingual staff and geographic reach have grown in response to increasing needs for its advocacy and services. Today, with headquarters in Mexico City, and offices in Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca and Baltimore, Maryland, CDM has established itself as a powerful, transnational agent of change.
What kind of issues does your legal empowerment work address?
For almost fourteen years, and since its founding, Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM) has provided legal services and legal empowerment tools to migrant workers and supported migrant worker advocacy to improve guestworker programs in the US. We have worked to ensure that the border is not a barrier to justice for migrants by training migrant worker leaders with tools to identify and address abuse and train their coworkers.
How are you using legal empowerment to address the problems? You can include a brief example of a case to describe your work.
Legal empowerment is at the root of CDM’s work in three key areas: the Migrant Defense Committee (“Comité”), our Contratados.org online platform, and our policy advocacy.
The Comité is a group of community-based leaders who organize and empower migrant workers to defend themselves and educate their co-workers. Comprised of more than 80 migrants, ex-migrants, and their family members, the Comité’s objectives are to become a permanent presence in workers’ communities and act as migrant rights’ advocates. Comité leaders train other migrants in labor and employment rights and connect them to the justice system, empowering thousands to take proactive approaches to ending workplace abuses.
Contratados.org is a website with a set of interactive tools that enable workers to share and access previously unavailable information about recruitment and employment and hold employers accountable. Workers rate and review recruiters and employers, warn each other about potential fraud, access know-your-rights materials in a variety of accessible formats, and denounce rights violations.
Finally, Comité members and other workers participate in CDM’s policy advocacy, through petitions, strategic lawsuits in U.S. courts, and testimony at the federal and state levels, all actions that have forced governments to respond to ongoing abuses in international labor migration.
What is/are major challenge(s) you face in your work, and what are you doing to overcome them?
Every year, hundreds of thousands of people leave their families and home communities and travel to the United States on guest worker visas to work in low-paid and dangerous industries. Many of them are employed under the temporary worker programs known as the H-2A (agricultural) and H-2B (non-agricultural) visa programs. The overwhelming majority of these workers are Mexican nationals.
Temporary migrant workers are vulnerable to exploitation by recruiters, supervisors, crew leaders and company owners. They are subject to many different types of abuses during recruitment in their countries of origin, during their work in the U.S., and after they return to their home communities. Common abuses include exorbitant recruitment fees, wage theft, violence, exposure to harmful chemicals, and workplace injuries. Despite laws that exist to protect workers’ rights and to remedy violations against them, few workers assert their rights for fear of retaliation from their employers and/or recruiters. For them, retaliation in the form of firing or not being brought back for a subsequent season is a dominating concern that prevents workers from taking action to hold their employers accountable. In addition, many workers are unaware of their rights and do not have access to low-cost legal services.
CDM supports Mexico-based migrant workers to defend and protect their rights as they move between their home communities in Mexico and their workplaces in the United States. CDM brings change to improve the recruitment and employment conditions of migrant workers through the following four programmatic areas:
(1) outreach, education and leadership development;
(2) intake, evaluation and referral services;
(3) litigation support and direct representation; and
(4) policy advocacy. CDM envisions a world where migrant worker rights are respected, migrants can access the justice system and use the law to protect themselves, and laws and policies reflect migrants’ voices.
What are the strategies you employ to ensure the long-term sustainability of your work?
To ensure the sustainability of our initiatives, CDM has spearheaded worker-driven advocacy, demanding stronger protections for vulnerable workers, and joined forces with allies across the country, forging enduring coalitions that will defend migrant workers. In 2011, CDM founded the International Labor Recruitment Working Group (ILRWG), a cross-sector, cross-visa coalition comprised of more than twenty organizations dedicated to fighting international labor recruitment abuse and labor trafficking. Currently, the ILRWG is working to develop an alternative model for labor migration that would obviate recruitment abuses by giving workers control over their visas and facilitating direct hiring. It contemplates a new framework that shifts control over the labor migration process from employers to workers, elevates labor standards for all workers, responds to established labor market needs, respects family unity, ensures equity and access to justice, and affords migrant workers an accessible pathway to citizenship.
Similarly, CDM has co-founded other coalitions, like the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas in the US, and Mexico-based and hemispheric networks, including the Migration Collective for the Americas (COMPA), the Regional Labor Mobility Initiative (INILAB)—a collaboration among a dozen migrant and worker justice groups in Central America, Mexico, the United States, and Canada. We are uniquely positioned to continue facilitating cross-border alliance-building, uniting Latin American and North American groups in the fight to defend low-wage migrant workers’ rights.
Do you have any advice for other organizations about scaling their work?
We have learned the importance of using technology to reach more people. For that reason, in 2014, CDM launched Contratados.org, an anti-trafficking platform created with migrant workers, to enable migrants to collectively hold recruiters and employers accountable by sharing real-time information about conditions along the migrant stream. Contratados.org is part of CDM’s Justice in Recruitment project, which takes aim at widespread fraud in the international labor recruitment process.
Contratados.org is an innovative tool in several ways: (1) it puts information in the hands of workers to prevent abuse before it occurs and before calling a lawyer or relying on a slow, often overcrowded justice system; (2) it connects workers to the formal legal system when necessary by channeling them to CDM’s legal team and to other resources; and (3) it allows workers to make informed decisions about whether to participate in transnational temporary visa programs, connecting the legal aspects of migrant labor to economic considerations.
Do you have any resources (publications, infographics, articles) you could share with us, to highlight your work?
All our publications are in our website:
-Shining A Light on Summer Work: A First Look at the Employers Using the J-1 Summer Work Travel Visa: The first-ever, data informed picture of employment realities in the J-1 Summer Work Travel Program (SWT)
Additionally, I suggest the following articles:
-Why Are Some People Paying To Work in The Nation
-Illegally Alienated: Migrant Women And The Lack Of Equal Representation in The Establishment
Do you have any tips for other practitioners?
We have learned how valuable it is to have the perspective of the community in designing innovative methods of legal empowerment. Comité leaders and other migrant workers participated in a full set of community focus groups to co-design Contratados.org and the related know-your-rights materials. With their input, we will expand Contratados.org features and pilot a pathway to visa-portability in the upcoming months
Do you have any recommendations for a book, a quote, a resource or piece of art or music that keeps you or your team inspired and motivated?
This piece of art keeps our team inspired and motivated. The image was the result of the convention of migrant women that took place last May in Washington D.C. The image shows how migrant women, although of different nationalities, recognized that they had experienced similar abuses, recognized the importance of sharing their stories and organizing to fight together for better working conditions in the United States.
If you have questions or thoughts to share about this member’s work, please share them below
Member Spotlights are short interview profiles focusing on members of the Global Legal Empowerment Network. Spotlight articles use case studies to provide useful insights into the work of other network members. Whether you are working in the same country, with similar issues, or want to understand new legal empowerment approaches, the Member Spotlight is a useful learning resource. You can read more about other organizations in our network here (https://community.namati.org/tags/spotlights) or by searching spotlight in our forum.