CTUL Community Impact Statement Regarding the Sentencing of Ricardo Batres for Labor Trafficking
CTUL (Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha) is a 501c3 nonprofit organization that educates low-wage workers about their labor rights and develops worker-led campaigns for systemic change in low-wage industries, including residential construction. The facts of this case first began coming to light due to CTUL’s outreach to non-union construction workers, people who worked for Batres. We at CTUL are thrilled to see justice being done in this case, but we are also apprehensive. As one of the members of CTUL’s Construction Committee put it as we reflected on this case together: “We are advancing, but we are tired. We are tired of so much injustice.”
Because the harm done by Ricardo Batres and his crimes is not limited to his immediate victims. His actions have ongoing, harmful impacts in the industry and the broader community, which we urge the court to consider in issuing a sentence. To do otherwise risks sending a dangerous message to Batres himself and to the industry as a whole.
The workers and families of the workers who worked directly for Batres suffered significantly because of unpaid wages, untreated accidents, and emotional trauma that will impact them for the rest of their lives. And the fact that Batres was able to operate with impunity for so long, from wage theft to payroll fraud to supplying trafficked labor to the jobsites of some of the most prestigious development projects in the Twin Cities, sent the clear message to all workers in the industry that if you speak up for your rights, there will be consequences. Batres’ success, up until his indictment, likewise sent a message to other contractors that you can not only get away with treating workers like this, but you can profit greatly by doing so. Even more, large developers and general contractors have learned that they could demand lower prices on construction bids, because Batres and other contractors who emulated Batres proved that you could lower costs on the backs of workers with little to no consequences.
So what is the real impact of Batres’ actions in this case? Large developers and finance behind those developers have learned that they can put downward pressure on contractors on their projects to build the projects as quickly and cheaply as possible. This has led to extreme fragmentation in the industry, with multiple layers of sub-contractors competing to offer the cheapest rates possible. The effect is that the one who gets the contract is the one who has figured out the most creative ways to skirt labor laws in order to put in a competitive bid. Contractors like Batres then step into this space and firmly establish a culture of fear within the workforce by threatening workers and retaliating against workers who stand up for their rights. While Batres is not the only contractor behaving this way in the industry, he was a trailblazer in finding creative ways to cut costs on the backs of workers.
Over the years, we at CTUL have heard many of the elements of this case repeated over and over in other places. Wage theft is widespread; construction workers have reported to us that they assume they will not be paid fully for one out of every four jobs they do. Reports of the type of intimidation and retaliation Batres practiced is also widespread in non-union construction work, as is the failure to provide necessary safety equipment. Many workers don’t learn until after they have been injured that they are victims of payroll fraud: the widespread practice of misclassifying workers as independent contractors to skirt the law that entitles injured employees to workers’ compensation. At the extreme end, as in this case, workers are trafficked and forced to work against their will. CTUL is currently investigating four similar cases involving dozens of construction workers. Batres’ actions highlighted in this case played a significant role in establishing these systems of exploitation in the industry.
This kind of worker abuse becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. More fear leads to more wage theft, more injuries going untreated, more reliance on emergency health resources, less stable housing, less access to nutritious food, all of which are linked by ample public health research to poorer health outcomes in the long term. Working more hours to make up for stolen wages means less time with family, less support and supervision for kids, more stress in the household, and poorer outcomes for all. It means eroding civic, religious, and social institutions due to people being too exhausted and defeated to participate.
The people experiencing all this are mostly workers of color and immigrant workers, adding to the racial disparities in our city and state.
Batres’ victims, construction workers who only ever wanted to work hard and earn a decent living for themselves and their families, had to move past enormous fear to raise their voices and bring this situation to light. We call upon the court to honor the courage of the construction workers who brought these widespread injustices to light by issuing a sentence that reflects the seriousness of Batres’ crimes and their wider implications. The eyes of the industry and the wider community are on this decision.