Report: Labor trafficking common in Minnesota’s construction industry

A Minneapolis workers' advocacy group has been documenting stories alleging exploitation among Latino immigrants

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Samantha Serrano Vargas moved to Minnesota under a promise of a good-paying job and a stable place to live.

Instead, Vargas, who uses the pronoun they, said they experienced sexual harassment and exploitation while working in construction.

“My employer had asked for sexual favors in exchange to continue working,” Vargas told MPR News this week through a Spanish-language interpreter. “I refused, and he kicked me out of the hotel and fired me.”

Labor trafficking, an illegal practice that includes forced labor, is prevalent in Minnesota’s construction industry, according to a report released Tuesday by Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL) in Minneapolis.

The workers' advocacy organization compiled stories from Vargas and several dozen other immigrants alleging exploitation in the field. The report comes on the heels of Hennepin County’s first-ever prosecution of a labor-trafficking case, which ended in a guilty plea last month.

Vargas, 34, said they moved to the United States from Mexico in 2007 and came to Minnesota from Iowa to work on various remodeling, framing and roofing projects.

Vargas said they worked on commercial, multi-family and single-family housing for about two years before going to CTUL. The report does not specify the employer who Vargas accuses of labor trafficking.

Merle Payne, co-director of CTUL, said construction workers have been consistently approaching the organization with complaints about wage theft and exploitation over the past few years.

“We’ve seen really horrific abuses in many different industries, but construction has been one where we’ve seen some of the worst of the worst,” he said.

Last month, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said CTUL and other organizations were instrumental in gathering evidence against Ricardo Batres, a Crystal man who pleaded guilty in the county’s first labor-trafficking case.

The CTUL report chronicles stories of wage theft and exploitation that Payne said indicates a pattern that goes beyond Batres’ case.

“This case was really the tip of an iceberg,” he said, “and you dip your head under the water and you’re going to see a much bigger problem that’s happening.”

But others in the construction profession caution that scrutiny of the entire industry isn’t warranted — and that hiring practices for specialty subtrades like hanging drywall or installing flooring are not the same as those used to build roads and bridges.

Tim Worke, chief executive officer for the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota, said his union members build roads and large commercial projects in the state who undergo a thorough bidding process, which would make it difficult for them to institute labor trafficking as a business model.

“There are practices like this that go on and they exist in the shadows, and if there is one or two of those practices that are occurring, that’s one or two too many,” he said. “It’s the broad brush that gets applied and discredits the entire industry that’s troubling to me.”

Last month, Freeman said his office is looking into other labor trafficking cases and that charges against other brokers are possible.

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