Click For Foreign Labor

Companies are using online middlemen to find legitimate unskilled workers

When she could not find enough workers for the construction firm owned by her son Thomas, Ann Carroll decided to go online. After typing in such search terms as "construction laborer" and "Mexican workers," she landed on the Web site for Labormex Foreign Labor Solutions. Within days she had a quote: $100 each for 11 Mexican workers and $1,340 to cover the visas. In October, Carroll Construction Co.'s recruits began laying sewer pipes in Ocean Springs, Miss., where the company is located. "I don't know what we would've done if we didn't go this route," says Carroll. "We're very happy with the workers."

Amid a federal crackdown on illegal immigration--including the December arrest of 1,282 Swift & Co. meatpacking workers--and a roiling political debate over expanding guest-worker programs, companies are turning to online middlemen to find legitimate foreign laborers. Job sites such as Monster.com (MNST ) and CareerBuilder.com have been helping companies scour the globe for white-collar talent since the late 1990s. Now unskilled workers, too, are a few clicks away, a boon for such chronically labor-starved industries as construction, agriculture, and catering.

As with all things Web-related, there are shady characters hoping to cash in, and immigration officials are hard-pressed to police the scores of Web sites that have popped up in recent years. "The Internet opens up channels for both above-board and fraudulent outfits," says Eli M. Kantor, a veteran Beverly Hills immigration and employment lawyer. "There's not much regulation of [online] recruiting."

But as Carroll's experience shows, using a legit online middleman can be efficient and cost-effective. Labormex was founded in 2002 by Seymour Taylor, an entrepreneur descended from a family of American settlers in Mexico. Business took off when he set up a Web site about a year ago and began advertising on Yahoo (YHOO ) and Google (GOOG ). The site boasts of "hardworking people acclimated to tough physical labor and who have worked under severe warm-weather conditions"--guys like Andreas Alcala Martinez, 29, who works for Carroll Construction. "Little money, but not hard work," says Martinez. He makes $9 an hour and arrived on an H-2B visa, of which the U.S. issues 66,000 annually for low-skilled work. He can work for Carroll for 10 months, with the option of renewal.

MAJOR CLIENTS

Next to the big job sites, Labormex is a minnow. Taylor says he placed about 200 people in 2006 and expects to triple that in '07. But the company, which has offices in New York and Monterrey, Mexico, has reeled in big clients, including Super 8 Motels and the Sonic Drive-Ins (SONC ) fast-food chain. "Labormex has been very helpful," says Gary Wilkerson, president of Kergen Brothers Inc., which owns 40 Sonic franchises in Louisiana and has placed 25 Labormex workers in its kitchens. "Working with them has put us a step ahead of our competition."

The Labor Dept. lists hundreds of officially sanctioned recruiting agencies on its Web site. But many online recruiters are nowhere to be found there, including latinworkers.com, ranchworkers.com, and us-guestworkers.com. The latter boasts that it can supply "high-quality workers from Nepal, where all students learn English from age 5." Founder Sandesh Prajapati says he has placed workers in Colorado and Massachusetts. When asked why his company did not appear in the Labor Dept.'s database, he said he expected it to be there in 2007.

Agency spokeswoman Peggy Abrahamson acknowledges the Labor Dept. doesn't "analyze Web sites" to determine recruiters' legitimacy. The enforcement of immigration laws falls to the Homeland Security Dept.'s Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) unit. Its Cyber Crimes Center has the task of policing the Net, but ICE, citing security issues, refuses to disclose how many people are working on the issue full-time.

The online recruiters are already providing ammunition for immigration critics. "They're getting employers addicted to a supply of cheap labor and lowering incentives for them to look for domestic workers," says Jessica M. Vaughn, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes expanding guest-worker programs. But with many Americans unwilling to mow lawns, build houses, and wait tables, many companies see online recruiters as a necessary way to tap a labor pool that is increasingly global.

By Moira Herbst

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