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Minneapolis group wins national grant to address labor trafficking

Members of the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha labor organization shown marching in south Minneapolis on International Workers Day in 2012.

The Minneapolis-based labor organization CTUL has been awarded a national grant to support its work fighting labor trafficking. The grant will support CTUL’s workplace rights outreach with low-wage workers of color to address wage theft, safety violations and other forms of abuse and exploitation.

CTUL, which stands for Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (or Center for Workers United in Struggle), was one of four organizations in the nation to receive the two-year grant from Partnership for Freedom, which seeks to confront the root causes that lead to both labor and sex trafficking.

CTUL is an organization led by and for low-wage workers, which is what drew the attention of Partnership for Freedom, said Program Manager Megan Tackney. “We are so excited about working with CTUL because they put workers at center of all they do.”

She pointed to CTUL’s ability to reach thousands of low-wage workers in industries that have frequent violations of worker rights, and those who have traditionally been vulnerable to exploitation, including immigrants, communities of color, and women.

This funding comes on the heels of the September arrest of Ricardo Batres, the owner of American Contractors and Associates, for alleged abuse of undocumented construction workers. CTUL’s documentation was instrumental in building the case against Batres and securing his arrest. Batres was charged with one count of labor trafficking, one count of insurance fraud and one count of theft by swindle.

Far from putting to rest the issue of worker exploitation, the arrest merely demonstrates the “the systemic nature of the problem,” said Luis Nuñez, a member of the CTUL Construction Worker Committee. “In construction, developers and general contractors seem to place significant downward pressure on contractors to increase their profit margin, often establishing a reality where subcontractors have to skirt the law to place the most competitive bid.”

Nuñez spoke of the importance of “holding the top tiers of power accountable and empowering workers to be able to voice their concerns without fear of retaliation.”

Nuñez knows first-hand the exploitation that can exist for low-wage workers in the construction industry. An immigrant from Honduras who has lived in this country since 2003, Nuñez works in painting and remodeling. He recalled his own experience of seeing a friend denied a lunch break and verbally and physically assaulted by his boss at his construction job.

Workers often don’t speak out in situations of exploitation because they do not know their rights, or because they fear for their jobs or their safety. Undocumented workers are particularly vulnerable to being exploited, and CTUL has focused on building leadership among low-wage workers and educating them about their rights. “The grant will support community organizing,” said Nuñez.

The money will also allow CTUL to build long-term partnerships with community organizations such as the Awood Center, a new worker center housed within the Minnesota Council on American Islamic Relations that is focused on outreach to the Twin Cities’ East African community.

The two-year grant to CTUL is the second grant Partnership for Freedom has awarded in Minneapolis in 2018 as part of a multi-tiered approach to address human trafficking in new, innovative ways. Program Manager Megan Tackney stated that Minneapolis was chosen for its strong history in addressing human trafficking, as well as its stated desire to improve its ability to combat worker exploitation, and its strong history of supporting labor organization.

Partnership for Freedom also funded a 2-year position for a Senior Advisor for Human Trafficking Prevention in Minneapolis. Shunu Shrestha, formerly of the Program to Aid Victims of Sexual Assault in Duluth, stepped into that position this summer. The grant to CTUL aims to address human trafficking at the community-organizing level.

In supporting CTUL, Partnership for Freedom hopes to support a new pathway for addressing human trafficking. In many cities, human trafficking is treated as a law enforcement issue, to be solved with arrests. The goal of the grants is to address the economic and social injustices that make people vulnerable to exploitation in the first place.

Tackney hopes that any programs or policy that arise from their grantees might be reproducible elsewhere in the country. She stated, “we hope that we demonstrate to city government and other funders that there’s a big need to be investing on the local level. If we can demonstrate change in three cities, we hope to inspire investment” across the country to improve the lives of vulnerable people.

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