Labor Trafficking and other abuses in Construction
On November 18th, 2019, the trial of State of Minnesota vs. Ricardo Ernesto Batres begins in Hennepin County. This is the first time Hennepin County is prosecuting for labor trafficking and presents a historic opportunity for workers in our community. The allegations in this case illustrate the fundamental imbalance of power that leads to horrific labor violations, but this case also demonstrates our capacity to change systems when worker-leaders know their power, speak up, and organize. This historic moment would not be possible without the bravery and leadership of worker-leaders. In the aftermath of this trial, CTUL will be highlighting stories that show that this is not an isolated incident but rather an industry in distress.
Ricardo Batres was a labor broker operating in the Twin Cities metro area. He operated as a subcontractor that was hired by other subcontractors to provide labor on projects led by large and well-known developers, such as Lennar Homes. He reportedly found and managed vulnerable workers in order to lower construction costs through wage theft, unsafe working conditions, and coercion, essentially acting to shield entities further up the contracting chain from accountability. This is a common practice in the non-union sector of the construction industry to obscure responsibility when injustices arise.
This trial represents the larger context of the construction industry, an industry in distress, where labor violations and wage theft are expected and respect and dignity are regularly denied in the non-union sector. Construction contractors not only tolerate these practices but also real estate developers and their financial backers are directly profiting from this kind of labor exploitation. It does not need to be this way. While some sectors of the construction industry are unionized and abide by human rights standards, there is a dark underbelly that does not. This shows us that it is possible to create a better standard in this industry and that we need to apply these same standards to the industry as a whole in order to prevent these kinds of issues from happening.
Ricardo Batres is not a lone wolf regarding this alleged conduct; he has peers, and clients who participate in this business model. Batres did not create this business model; his alleged conduct is a result of the developers and financiers that have established a system based solely on profit, without consideration of human rights. Until workers have a voice in their workplace and we create a system that actually holds developers accountable, opposed to self-regulation, these practices will only continue.
CTUL and its partners, including national and local monitoring experts and building trades unions, are developing the Building Dignity and Respect Standards Council (BDC), a standards-setting and monitoring organization, based on the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) model. Under this program, developers and general contractors will enter legally binding program participation agreements with BDC that require all contractors at every tier of a project to abide by basic standards that protect the rights of workers to fair treatment, a safe workplace, and a voice in their working conditions. In addition to independent monitoring, workers are empowered through know your rights trainings as frontline monitors and defenders of their own rights, with strict protections against retaliation. Swift and serious repercussions for non-compliant contractors ensure prompt resolutions with meaningful remedies when violations are uncovered. The goal is to prevent abuses from occurring in the first place.