The workers had arrived in the Twin Cities in a rush of hope—a wave of migrants lured by the promise of $20-an-hour wages and steady jobs amid the region’s real-estate boom. But when they came to Minneapolis in search of decent work last summer, they stumbled into a nightmare instead: life-threatening injuries on the job, crushing debt, a bout in the local jail, and, for some, deportation orders.
The labor-advocacy organization Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL) has helped local authorities bring a criminal complaint charging Ricardo Batres and his construction firm American Contractors and Associates with labor trafficking, theft of public funds, and insurance fraud. Though labor-trafficking prosecutions are rare in this industry, advocates say the case illustrates who really pays for the Twin Cities’ new office towers and suburban row houses: the immigrant workers whose labor is rewarded with broken bodies and one-way tickets back across the border.
During the summer of 2017, American Contractors allegedly recruited about a dozen workers and deployed them to local projects for 10-to-12-hour shifts, about six days a week, often in dangerous conditions that ultimately left two workers severely injured.
These brutal conditions appear to be increasingly typical in the Twin Cities, one of the Midwest’s fastest growing, but also most racially and socially segregated, regions. Though Minnesota has a strong tradition of unionization in the construction industry, recent growth in Minneapolis and St. Paul has drawn many immigrant workers into construction jobs with substandard conditions.
At American Contractors, according to the complaint, in addition to their punishing daily work regimen, workers were routinely shorted on weekly wages and denied standard benefits. Batres allegedly denied them overtime pay and often tried to undercount the hours they worked. The various projects they worked on, including wood framing and wall installations, were rife with hazards; workers often had to scale elevated buildings without proper protective gear. Several workers were injured on the job and, without adequate medical care, forced to return to work before they recovered. Two workers with serious injuries were treated only with massage-therapy sessions with a “traditional healer.” Workers were allegedly discouraged from consulting a chiropractor to avoid costly litigation over insurance. That would make it more difficult to secure new contracts, they were told, and undermine the work prospects.