Workers seek commitment from developers to build with ‘dignity and respect’

As allegations of wage theft continue to bubble up from the Twin Cities’ nonunion construction industry, a worker-led initiative aims to partner with developers to keep labor abuses off their job sites.

After months of behind-the-scenes planning and organizing, construction workers this week publicly invited local developers to join the Building Dignity and Respect (BDR) program and agree to uphold basic human-rights standards for everyone working on their projects, including workers employed by subcontractors.

Post-construction cleaning worker Daniel Sanchez estimates that he has lost over $110,000 to wage theft over 10 years working in the industry. He said layers of contractors and subcontractors should not shield developers from responsibility for abuses on their projects.

“Morally, developers have to be accountable for what’s happening on their job sites,” Sanchez said during an event to roll out the BDR program in Minneapolis yesterday. “We know we’re not going to change this industry by getting rid of just one subcontractor. Developers need to work with us to stop wage theft.”

Sanchez and other construction workers, who have been organizing with the local worker center CTUL, called out a handful of local developers by name, urging Doran Properties Group, MWF Properties, Solhem Companies, United Properties and YellowTree to come to the table with BDR now, before workers and their community allies ramp up the public pressure.

CTUL Co-Director Merle Payne said the campaign would target three large, multi-family construction developers – assuming they have not yet signed onto an agreement with the BDR – with a public action June 16. CTUL’s previous campaigns include a groundbreaking effort to pressure big-box retailers like Target and Best Buy take responsibility for the labor practices of its cleaning contractors.

“Housing developers in the Twin Cities are at a crossroads,” Payne said. “On one path, they can choose to ensure basic dignity and respect for the workers who develop their projects and who build our cities either by signing into the BDR program or by using 100% union labor. On the other path, developers can continue business as usual, maintaining an industry with rampant wage theft, dangerous working conditions and, at the extreme, labor trafficking.”

An advisory council assembled by county attorneys in Ramsey and Washington counties earlier this year approved a report estimating that wage theft costs construction workers over $3 million in wages each year, and diverts over $11 million from Social Security and Medicare funds.

While prosecutors and state regulators have begun stepping up efforts to hold contractors accountable, the BDR program is setting out to stop wage theft before it happens.

Developers that participate in BDR would sign a legally binding agreement to protect workers on their projects from wage theft, physical and sexual abuse and human trafficking, and to provide them with safe working conditions and fair pay.

The BDR Standards Council would provide education to workers about their rights and protections, and monitor participating developers’ job sites to ensure compliance.

“If a contractor refuses to maintain compliance, they will no longer be able to work for developers that participate in the Building Dignity and Respect program,” said Doug Mork, executive director of the Standards Council.

The program follows what’s known as the “Worker-driven Social Responsibility model,” which agricultural workers in Florida successfully used to raise standards in an industry with similarly murky relationships between landowners, labor brokers, contractors and workers.

CTUL member Pedro Carbajal, a painter on local construction sites, was among local workers who traveled to Florida for a firsthand look at how the model works.

“If they can do it there, we can do it here,” he said. “We may work in different industries – farm work and construction – but what unites us is the cause, what unites us is the suffering we’ve lived. And together, we can change this.”

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