Construction workers and members of CTUL march down Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis on June 16, 2022 to promote worker’s rights. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

When construction worker Pedro Carbajal didn’t get paid for his labor, he went to a Minneapolis-based workers’ rights group for help. Experiencing wage theft left him vulnerable and nearly fractured his family.

“It’s a sense of security–it’s a plate of food on the table,” Carbajal said of his wages. “I say this because when it’s time to pay the bills and rent, we’re stressed.”

Now that group Carbajal leaned on–Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL)–is launching the Building Dignity and Respect Program in order to stop worker abuse. 

The program is geared toward non-union construction workers since they routinely face abuses such as wage theft, physical and sexual assault, human trafficking, and lack of access to fair wages and safe conditions, according to CTUL.

CTUL announced the program in May, and held a news conference and march in downtown Minneapolis Thursday to publicly call on three developers–YellowTree, United Properties, and Solhem Companies–to sign onto the program.

El pueblo unido jamás será vencido. (The people united will never be divided.)

demonstrators marching for workers’ rights

About 150 people attended the march, chanting slogans in Spanish such as, “CTUL vive; la lucha sigue” (long live CTUL; the struggle continues), and, “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” (the people united will never be divided).

CTUL is asking developers to voluntarily participate in the legally-binding program, which establishes a code of conduct in order to stop abuse. 

Workers formed the program’s standards after attending a series of educational sessions about their legal labor rights and how they can enforce them, said Doug Mork, the executive director of the Building Dignity and Respect Standards Council. 

“The education, as you might imagine, is around ‘How is this supposed to work?’ ” Mork said. “ ‘What does a construction job with dignity and respect look like under the law and under the code of conduct?’ ”

The program requires participating developers to create a fund that would compensate workers whose wages are stolen. In addition, developers would have to provide workers with safety training and inform them about details such as wages and hours.

CTUL’s statement of principles says that “workers are the only actors in the supply chain with a vital and abiding interest in ensuring that their rights are protected. If…a program intended to improve their situation is to work, workers…must be at the head of the table in creating and implementing their program.”

In addition to YellowTree, United Properties, and Solhem Companies, CTUL has previously called on other Twin Cities developers, including Doran Properties Group and MWF Properties, to adopt the standards. None of the companies responded to Sahan Journal’s repeated requests for comment. 

In December, CTUL sent 11 developers letters asking for a meeting with them. Although one agreed to meet with CTUL, no developers have joined the program.

Immigrants, people of color at higher risk

Non-union construction workers earn 10 to 20 percent less than unionized workers and are less likely to have access to health insurance, sick leave, and a retirement plan, according to a study by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute. 

Wage theft is so rampant that workers expect that about a fourth of their jobs won’t pay them fully, said Merle Payne, CTUL’s co-director. Since its inception, CTUL has recovered over two million dollars in stolen wages, he added.

Undocumented construction workers face an added layer of risk since their employers often threaten to report them to immigration officials when they speak out about abuse, according to the Worker-Driven Social Responsibility Network.

My kids–during that time–thought they wouldn’t have a dad…I thought I was going to lose my family forever.

Pedro Carbajal

Workers of color and immigrants are more vulnerable to exploitation, Mork said.

At one point, Carbajal, his wife, and their four children were evicted from their trailer because he was unable to pay the costs due to wage theft. Carbajal’s wife and children found shelter with his wife’s relatives. Due to lack of space, Carbajal had to live separately, which had a detrimental psychological impact on him and his family.

“My kids–during that time–thought they wouldn’t have a dad. I thought that I was going to just not be able to live with them anymore,” Carbajal said. “I thought I was going to lose my family forever.”

‘If these developers really knew’

Under CTUL’s new effort, people working under developers in the program can report abuse to the Building Dignity and Respect Standards Council. When there are complaints, the council will monitor contractors’ worksites to make sure they are complying with the standards, and investigate any abuse complaints.

Monitoring construction sites gives workers an alternative to going through the court system with their complaints, which is an often lengthy and unfruitful process, said CTUL organizers.

“We haven’t invested nearly enough public dollars on the enforcement side,” said Mork. “There’s limited resources…and we’ve got workers building things in every corner of the city.”

Since many construction workers support their families, they often don’t have time to wait for a county attorney to prosecute abusers, according to Mork.

Moreover, many undocumented and non-union construction workers don’t report abuse to police or county attorneys because they fear the possible ramifications. In 2019, a Twin Cities contractor pleaded guilty in Hennepin County District Court to coercing an undocumented man into working for him. CTUL activists said at the time that it was the first case of its kind in Hennepin County, and one of few labor trafficking cases to be prosecuted in Minnesota.

Veronica Mendez Moore, co-director of the workers’ rights group, CTUL, speaks at a press conference at Plymouth Congregational Church on June 16, 2022. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

“Those workers impacted by these unlawful practices are susceptible due to their immigration status, and [are] fearful of their employers and being deported,” said Lacey Severins, a spokesperson for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. “Thus, these violations can occur without being reported.”

Severins said that the county attorney’s office does not currently have any active labor trafficking cases, but that at least one case is “under investigation.”

If the Building Dignity and Respect Standards Council finds that a contractor is abusing workers, developers in CTUL’s program would be legally required to stop working with the contractor, Mork said. The length of the prohibition would depend on the severity of the violation.

Carbajal blames the developer who employed him through his contractor for the difficulties his family endured.

“I think if these developers really knew the hardships that they caused in our lives–if they really knew how it has impacted me–I think they would stop doing this,” Carbajal said.

Aarushi Sen is an intern at Sahan Journal. She is a journalism and political science student at the University of Minnesota.