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Justin Cummins, a partner in the Cummins & Cummins law firm in Minneapolis, says worker exploitation appears to be a systemic problem. (Photo: Bill Klotz, special to Finance & Commerce)

Shadow Workforce [PART 2]: A migrant worker’s story

This is the second installment of a four-part series from Finance & Commerce.

If Jairo Cruz had been a professional football player instead of a construction worker in Greater Minnesota, he may well have been deemed a hero for playing his way through injury and taking one for the team.

But the Digi-Key expansion in Thief River Falls is a long way from U.S. Bank Stadium. And Cruz didn’t receive any accolades from fans, coaches or broadcasters when he messed up his knee while doing concrete work on the $300 million Digi-Key project last December.

As union officials tell the story, Cruz would have settled for basic medical treatment and a little job security.

“He reported the injury to his foreman, and they thought it was not a big deal,” Octavio Chung, Cruz’s union representative, said in an interview with Finance & Commerce. “Because they thought it was not a big deal, they kind of left it alone.”

Despite swelling and pain in his knee, Cruz stayed on the job until Dec. 22, the union rep said. He took a break for the holidays. After returning to work in January, the bosses told him they “didn’t need him anymore,” Chung said.

From a wage standpoint, Cruz and at least two other Latino Digi-Key workers got some relief in late September, when the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry said that a subcontractor violated state labor standards and prevailing wage laws related to its work on the project. The department said each worker was owed back wages for work performed between April 1 and Dec. 1, 2018.

But even with the back pay, medical attention will have to wait. In an interview, Cruz said doctors have recommended surgery for the knee, but he’s uninsured and can’t afford the $20,000 to $30,000 operation, he said.

But at least Cruz lived to tell about his injury.

Construction leads all industries in workplace deaths in the U.S., and Latino workers are especially at risk, according to an AFL-CIO analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Minnesota reflects that trend, experts say.

Latino workers “continue to be at increased risk of job death” on U.S. job sites, according to the April 2019 AFL-CIO report called “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect.” In all industries, 903 Latino workers died on U.S. job sites in 2017, up from 879 the previous year.

“As construction has become safer across the board, there is one anomaly — and that is as a young, male Latino construction worker, you are more at risk of death in the workplace than you were prior to 2010,” Burt Johnson, an attorney for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters in St. Paul, said in an interview.

That hasn’t stemmed the flow of migrant workers into the country.

Workers from Central America are coming to Minnesota with dreams of making money unheard of in their home country, but too often they find themselves exploited by subcontractors and labor brokers who value profits over safety, according to industry watchdogs.

The temptation to look the other way is great. For their part, contractors can increase profits by paying this shadow workforce in cash, thus avoiding payroll taxes, workers compensation and other costs.

Oftentimes, immigrant workers are recruited by disreputable labor brokers on whom they rely for housing. In one recent example, 20 workers were shoehorned into a north Minneapolis house with only one bathroom, Johnson said.

Johnson told Finance & Commerce that one notorious labor broker has rented dilapidated houses in Eagan, Minneapolis and New Hope, where workers live in overcrowded conditions. Workers seldom complain for fear of reprisals.

Besides, the lure of relatively good money is too much to resist.

“You can’t make $20 an hour cash in Guatemala or Honduras or El Salvador,” Johnson said. “That is the best job that worker ever had. He’s 20 years old and, like any 20-year-old male, thinks he’s invincible.

“You combine that with some elements of coercion and dependence, and you have an atmosphere that is suddenly ripe for workers, and the most vulnerable populations, to workplace injury and death.”

Justin Cummins, a partner in the Cummins & Cummins law firm in Minneapolis, said worker exploitation appears to be a systemic problem.

“The issue of worker exploitation in the construction industry comes down to a question of power imbalance,” said Cummins, who works extensively on issues related to labor and discrimination in employment. “Unscrupulous employers think they can engage in wage theft or other abuses because they believe that the workers are afraid and won’t go to the authorities.”

Polaris, a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to fighting human trafficking, has analyzed more than 32,000 cases of human trafficking documented between December 2007 and December 2016, according to its website.

According to data gathered at Polaris’ website:

  • Labor trafficking in the construction industry “usually occurs within small contracting businesses” related to roofing, carpentry, welding, electrical work and masonry.
  • Typical human trafficking “survivors” are men from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and most have “H-2B visas,” which allow employers to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis, or are undocumented.
  • U.S. citizens have also been forced to perform construction “under the control of fraudulent religious organizations, unscrupulous residential and drug recovery programs and individuals posing as landlords.”

Aaron Sojourner, a labor economist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, said worker exploitation affects a wide range of people.

“But unscrupulous employers, like all criminals, try to prey on easier pickings; people who are more vulnerable, people who have less access to law enforcement, people who have less access to other forms of power, to the media, to worker organizations, to community support — it’s easier to push some people around than others,” Sojourner said.

Luis Nunez, a construction worker and member of the Center for Workers United in Struggle construction committee, told Finance & Commerce in September 2018 that he had personally seen worker abuse on local construction projects.

In one case, a co-worker was grabbed by the throat and slammed to the ground by one of the bosses after the worker complained that he needed to take a break to have a meal, Nunez said through an interpreter.

Hilaro Flores, a 46-year-old immigrant from Mexico City, told Finance & Commerce that he has been subjected to unsafe conditions on job sites in Minnesota, including being forced to work outdoors when winter temperatures dip to dangerously low levels.

As a supervisor, Flores says he was pressured to cover for the employer when he learned of an on-the-job injury suffered by a worker. One such case, he says, involved a 16-year-old who had cut his hand.

“[The labor broker] used to tell me that every time I see an accident on a job, report it was not on the job, they got hurt in the house. Because if it was reported as an accident on the job, [the employer’s] insurance will increase,” Flores said through an interpreter.

“Not a lot of people are paying attention,” he added. “Not a lot of people in the state of Minnesota care about what we are suffering in construction. My belief is that maybe one day, somebody will care about us.”

Like Flores, Cruz says he just wants to earn an honest living and support his family. With no college degree and limited language skills, he has few options outside of construction. His injured knee is another obstacle.

In the interview with Finance & Commerce, Cruz said he hopes to get his knee healthy again and find work in Minnesota’s construction industry, which is struggling to find workers.

Cruz is no stranger to unsafe working conditions. He comes from Honduras, where crime and violence are prevalent.

“I used to sell fruit at the mercado, and then after working a long day, it was very unsafe to go from work to home, because there was a lot of violence,” Cruz said through an interpreter. “I took the bus. I didn’t know if I was going to get robbed.

“It was hard to work and I felt unsafe, especially when the pay is not that good. You don’t get paid much and on top of that you might get robbed. That is why I decided to come to the U.S.”

How did he react to the working conditions he encountered in Minnesota?

“It was very disappointing,” he said. “To get injured on the job and not receive any care for it, that is very disappointing.”

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