Immigrant Labor Goes Online

The shady Internet world of immigrant labor agencies is hard to scrutinize, and even harder to police

When Hurricane Katrina swept away buildings, homes, and infrastructure on the Gulf Coast, it also drained a large pool of workers from the area. For months, Ann Carroll, a recruiter for her son's Carroll Construction outfit in Ocean Springs, Miss., ran newspaper ads to find laborers, but her phone wasn't ringing.

So earlier this year she decided to take her hunt online. Carroll entered search terms like "construction laborer" and "Mexican workers" into search engines, and landed on the Web site for Labormex Foreign Labor Solutions, which recruits workers from abroad. Within days, she received a quote from the company on the cost to bring 11 workers from Mexico to work for her company. Carroll Construction paid Labormex $100 each for 11 workers and $1,340 to the Homeland Security Dept. to participate in the H2B worker program. Labormex handled visa processing for the workers, who each pay about $100 for their visas. The Mexicans started their new jobs in October, 2006.

With demand growing for lower-cost labor in industries such as construction, agriculture, and catering, many employers are hiring immigrant workers from Latin America and Asia. But sourcing these workers can be a challenge for U.S.-based companies. That's one prime reason an industry of middlemen has emerged to facilitate the process and is increasingly advertising their services online. More employers are finding these Internet-based companies a convenient means to recruit workers from an otherwise hard-to-reach global labor force.

Uncharted Territory

But while the Internet's power to connect employers and workers across the world can make recruiting convenient, the practice is also controversial. The reach and anonymity of the Net make it easy for ill-intentioned recruiters to set up a legitimate-looking online site while facilitating illegal entry into the U.S. Recruiters can also exploit foreign workers, taking their money without delivering jobs. Online recruiting has emerged only in the past several years, and remains unfamiliar terrain for the Labor Dept., the Homeland Security Dept., and immigration experts.

Labormex has offices in New York and Monterrey, Mexico, and advertises "hardworking people who are acclimated to tough physical labor and who have worked under severe warm-weather conditions." Labormex assesses workers a week's pay for the fee and charges employers various amounts depending on the work circumstances. While Carroll Construction paid Labormex $100 per worker (the 11 now represent about one-third of Carroll's workforce), C&H Contracting, also in Ocean Springs, paid $50 per worker because Labormex provides a discount when a client seeks more than 15 workers.

"I don't know what we would've done if we didn't go this route; I don't know how we'd have found people," Carroll says. "We're very happy with the workers they sent; my boss said they work three times as hard as the other guys here."

Eli Kantor, who has practiced immigration and employment law in Beverly Hills, Calif., for 30 years, likens the situation to the Wild West. "There's not much regulation of recruiting, and it's only when things go seriously bad that there's litigation," says Kantor. "The Internet opens up more channels for both above-board and fraudulent outfits, and they stand to make a lot of money."

Growing Market

Whether companies are acting legitimately or not, the Internet recruiting business seems set to expand. Seymour Taylor started Labormex four years ago; at the time he was able to place about 50 workers annually. After launching his Web site about a year ago—and advertising on Yahoo! (YHOO) and Google (GOOG) search engines—his business has quadrupled. Taylor recruits mainly from rural areas in Mexico for jobs in agriculture, construction, and welding; clients include rice mills, construction companies, the Sonic Drive-In ( 2 3 Next Page