In the summer of 2017, a Minnesota construction worker named Erick Diaz met Ricardo Batres, a sub-contractor who offered him what sounded like a good gig framing multi-family homes. The job was supposed to include perks like private living quarters, health insurance, and $20 an hour. But when Diaz came to the Twin Cities metro area in the summer of 2017, he found himself sharing a room with five other workers in a house with no working AC or shower. A month after he arrived, Diaz said, Batres refused to keep paying for even that meagre accommodation. He then told them to find their own housing. Batres also threatened Diaz, who came to the U.S. from Honduras in 2007, with deportation and paid him less than he was owed.
After an incident in which one of Diaz's co-workers was injured after a large cable fell on his leg and he was refused care or paid time off, Diaz walked off the job, along with five other workers. Shortly afterward, Batres followed through on his threats and called ICE on the workers who spoke out—three were deported and another was held in detention for three months.
Last month, Batres was sentenced to four months jail time for his mistreatment of workers; when he pleaded guilty to labor trafficking charges late last year he became reportedly the first person in the history of the Twin Cities to be convicted of such a crime. Advocates say that labor trafficking is far more common than the scarce prosecutions of it would suggest, partly because victims, who may be undocumented workers, avoid the authorities. (This also makes it very difficult to say how common labor trafficking is in the U.S.) Two years ago, Arizona State University's School of Social Work found that between 2013 and 2016, only 125 people were arrested for labor trafficking in 47 labor trafficking cases prosecuted in the United States.
Often, victims of labor trafficking have very few options. Even after being taken advantage of, Diaz stayed in touch with Batres and returned to work for him briefly, both because he had a hard time finding other work and because his former boss said he would hire lawyers and use secret connections to ICE to expunge his imprisoned coworkers' records. When Diaz eventually contacted the Minneapolis-based workers center Centro De Trabajadores Unidos En La Lucha (CTUL) to assist in helping him seek justice, they discovered that this was a lie.
"That's when I found out that, you know, Ricardo wasn't helping anybody. There weren't any lawyers that he was providing for folks, and that two of my friends have been deported," said Diaz.
That kind of deception and cruelty isn't necessarily common. But more mundane forms of wage theft are common in low-paying jobs, especially when the workers are immigrants.
Rebecca Galemba, an anthropologist who studies labor and migration at the University of Denver, thinks that wage theft is common partly because society as a whole doesn't place much value on this type of work.
"As one attorney I interviewed mentioned, it also has to do with how our society views not only immigrants but also low-wage workers—these workers are fundamentally devalued in society so there is a lack of societal and public concern for their plight," she said.
Donald Trump has exacerbated the problem through xenophobic immigration policies and rhetoric. His administration has tried to step up the deportation of undocumented immigrants—even those who have not committed other crimes—and proposed massive cuts to the department concerned with fighting forced labor.
"This administration has [created] policies that have made it more difficult for victims to get immigration status, or to access systems that could protect them," said Julie Dahlstrom, the director of the Immigrants Rights and Human Trafficking Program at Boston University's law school. "They've provided greater tools to perpetrators of trafficking. For example, we see a number of cases where perpetrators are using the deportation threats they have always had. But in the current climate, the threat to call ICE is incredibly compelling because ICE is actually picking up that phone and often showing up when a perpetrator calls. Whereas in the past, that had not been the case."
Nonprofits and other advocates have attempted to make it easier for trafficked workers to report their employers. The Batres case represented a victory for the organizations like Advocates of Human Rights (who collected testimonies for the Batres case) and CTUL (who went to job sites to contact his victims). But labor trafficking remains an especially difficult offense to build a case around. Victims are often wary about coming forward, as they've been conditioned to fear their exploiters retaliation. If they are undocumented migrants, they may also fear that coming forward will result in their deportation.
They also don't always see themselves as victims of a crime, and may not know their rights or about the legal mechanisms that are supposed to protect them. "People are not 'rescued' from these situations," Dahlstrom said. "This is not that's not how it works. Often these workers actually are supporting themselves and their families." Fighting trafficking, he suggests, means giving people the ability to access jobs where they aren't so at risk for exploitation. "That means like access to work authorization, the ability to live and work with dignity in the United States."
Diaz thinks that workers need to know when they are being mistreated, and speak up. "If I'm working for a contractor, I have the right to receive reimbursement or compensation for [an] injury," Diaz said. "I've confronted a lot of people who say, you know, I always get my check on time. But they don't realize that they're stealing a lot of money from them."
"Sometimes people are forced to work against their will. Sometimes they are forced to work in bad weather conditions. And a lot of times there aren't any safety precautions at work," he added. "You have to know your rights as a worker."
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