Labor trafficker’s victims speak out, pointing to need for reform

Ricardo Batres (Hennepin County photo)

Notorious wage broker Ricardo Batres, who pleaded guilty to felony charges of labor trafficking and insurance fraud in November, received a nine-month sentence in Hennepin County district court Wednesday.

The sentencing brought to a close the first labor trafficking case to emerge from Minnesota’s construction industry. But worker advocates, armed with the findings of an alarming new report, warn that unless the industry makes some fundamental changes, it’s unlikely to be the last.

Judge Lois Conroy did not stray from the terms of a plea agreement Batres reached with prosecutors last year, but the proceeding did give his victims an opportunity to put their stories on record.

“I fear those connected with Mr. Batres,” one of his former workers, identified by the initials “YIB,” said in a statement read by a victim’s advocate. “I am always fearful. I feel like everyone is my enemy. I did not anticipate this experience in Minnesota.”

“YIB” was one of four former employees who provided the court with statements. They said Batres made them work long hours to keep their housing, which the trafficker arranged, or to pay off debts, which the trafficker held.

Some said they were not paid in full for hours they worked. Others described working through the pain of jobsite injuries, often in unsafe conditions.

“Death was very close to us,” one victim said.

When a spinal injury sustained by victim “JZL” became too serious to work through, Batres instructed the worker to give false information to medical providers, so Batres could avoid liability. In his statement, “JZL” said his family “lived in constant fear” because Batres “threatened to kill us if I reported him to authorities.”

“He treats people worse than animals,” another victim said. “He does not have a conscience.”

Twin Cities construction workers joined the “March for Dignity and Respect,” sponsored by CTUL, in Minneapolis just over a year ago.

An industry in crisis

The testimony of Batres’ victims echoed findings of a new report by the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) Network, which warns of a “human rights crisis” on local non-union construction sites.

Released last month, “Building Dignity and Respect: The Case for Worker-driven Social Responsibility in the Twin Cities Construction Industry” draws from surveys of 76 metro-area residents who have worked a wide range of construction jobs.

CTUL, a Twin Cities worker center and human rights organization, conducted the surveys last winter, gathering information about wages, benefits, training, workplace safety and more.

Nearly half of workers reported being cheated out of wages they were owed. Many said their employers failed to tack overtime premiums onto their wage rates. Others said they were paid less than minimum wage, were forced to work through legally required breaks or had hours shaved off their time cards.

The report also calls into question safety protocols on local non-union sites. Nearly half of those surveyed said they had not received safety training before beginning work, and 44% reported not getting proper safety equipment from an employer.

Three in 10 workers surveyed said they had been hurt on the job at some point, and most workers who reported getting hurt said their employer failed to cover medical expenses or compensate them for lost wages.

Meanwhile, a third of workers surveyed said they wouldn’t voice their concerns about safety, wage theft or other abuses to supervisors for fear of retaliation, whether it be losing their job or being blacklisted, deported or kicked out of employer-provided housing.

Tip of the iceberg

While Batres’ conviction breaks new ground, advocacy groups like CTUL and local construction unions warn Batres is not the only bad actor in town. CTUL is currently investigating four other labor trafficking cases, with dozens of Twin Cities workers involved, according to the WSR Network report.

At Batres’ sentencing, the worker center submitted a community impact statement into the record, warning the non-union construction industry creates incentives for contractors like Batres to “cut costs on the backs of workers.”

“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,” the statement reads. “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.”

Moving forward

Fragmentation and transience may be facts of life for people working at the bottom of construction labor chain, but unsafe conditions, wage theft and abuse don’t have to be.

The report calls for a new, worker-driven model to hold Twin Cities developers and contractors accountable – and to stop traffickers like Batres before they get a toehold in the market.

The approach involves getting decision-makers at the top of the labor-contracting chain to enter a legally binding, standard-setting agreement with a human rights organization.

Similar structures have improved conditions for workers in other highly fractured contracting chains worldwide, CTUL Co-Director Merle Payne said. After years of organizing by tomato workers, corporate buyers and growers entered into a WSR structure – the Fair Food Standards Council – that monitors compliance with a set of unique standards in the Florida fields.

“This model will work effectively in a sector where the real power is so many tiers away from you as a worker,” Payne said. “It creates accountability through the entire structure by ensuring the people at the top are taking responsibility to ensure their profits are not made off of severe exploitation.”

Building dignity and respect

Workers organizing with CTUL already have launched a campaign to make the WSR model a reality.

They want large developers and general contractors in the Twin Cities to participate in the Building Dignity and Respect Standards Council. The council, Payne said, would establish and monitor a code of conduct that participants would require their subcontractors to uphold at every strata of the labor chain.

Additionally, the council would educate workers about their rights and make it easy for workers to report any violations without fear of retaliation. Any employer found to have violated the code of conduct would face swift, meaningful consequences.

While Batres’ victims waited months for their day in court, in the Florida tomato fields, where workers now have access to a complaint hotline, most disputes are resolved in less than two weeks, according to the Fair Foods Standards Council.

“It really demonstrates the power of what this model can be,” Payne said. “When you have workers themselves empowered to enforce their standards, suddenly you have thousands of monitoring agents on the ground … making sure there are no violations in the first place.

“That’s deep enforcement, and that’s what this model builds. When that happens, in something like this case, Ricardo Batres does not exist.”

Trackbacks

  1. […] We all know working people are under pressure, but they are also fighting back in exciting ways. Health care workers are organizing with community allies to prevent the closure of two St. Paul hospitals, so that our neighbors who need medical care will continue to have the access they deserve. Folks working two or even three jobs to provide for their families are declaring together, “One Job Should Be Enough.” And in the construction industry, union and non-union workers are banding together to combat human trafficking in our state. […]

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