The US border with Mexico is described by turns as a primitive lawless frontier, or a dystopic militarized no-man’s land. Its technological architecture reflects its savage modernity—barren desert strips dotted with aerial drones and biometric sensors. But Fortress America now faces a disruption from the grassroots: a new tech tool is working to empower migrants rather than police them, helping workers navigate the labor laws and dodgy politics of an alien terrain.
The Contratados.org site meshes worker solidarity with digital technology in a user-friendly format—part pocket-sized know-your-rights training, part Yelp—with the the street-level sensibility of the workers’ centers that aid migrant workers on the ground in their communities. The program was built through a collaboration between progressive design groups Research Action Design and Studio REV-, and pro-migrant nonprofits including Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM), an advocacy group, and the worker-led transnational activist network Migrant Defense Committee.
Contratados.org focuses primarily on “guestworkers” who are recruited on special labor visas to fill temporary jobs in the United States. Through the site’s app-like interface, workers access tools for tracking employers’ reputations, advice on avoiding abusive bosses, and resources for learning about labor regulations and connecting with advocates. While providing basic legal knowledge, the site also lets workers know they are not alone. This nascent social network, which is paired with informational comics and other media tools, may prove vital for workers who are typically cut off from their home communities and lack social supports outside their workplace.
Though Contratados.org can’t replace the crucial services of legal advocates or formal regulators, it can equip workers with tools for asserting control over their working conditions. With immigrants increasingly linked into mobile networks, the site reflects the technologization in transnational labor markets. We don’t think of the border as a high-tech place, but in recent years, the digital ether has mediated the many aspects of the flow of labor migration, from border smuggling routes to the media blast around student guestworker protests at Hershey’s Pennsylvania packing plant.