Workers and developers need to come together to end wage theft in construction | Opinion

By: - January 19, 2022 7:47 am

Photo courtesy Mario Segura.

“How come you work a lot and you don’t have money?” my daughter asks me after I work long hours and find myself unable to pay for new clothes and supplies for her first day back at school.

I’ve been a construction worker in wood framing for the past 17 years. I’m from Guatemala and have lived in Minnesota for the past 8 years. I live in Eagan with my wife and two children. I work hard but still find myself with bills piling up due to the pervasive wage theft that plagues workers and our families in the non-union construction industry.

My bills are piling up including rent, car insurance, utilities, clothes for my children, and my son’s medical bills. My son has been diagnosed with a disease and due to the frequency of his treatments and medical visits, going back to Guatemala is not an option for us. Yet it’s clear my work is undervalued here. It puts my family in a difficult position.

This past year, my wife was pregnant while I was facing wage theft where I was out thousands of dollars. It caused my family months of financial stress and hardships. I believe the stress caused her to lose the baby. Wage theft has a real impact on the lives of workers and our families.

I know I’m not alone. Nearly one in four construction workers have been cheated out of money.

It should be clear that our labor is “essential,” yet we are frequently taken advantage of due to our immigration status, the language we speak, or lack of understanding of our rights as workers.

While some Minnesotans would believe that the issues of wage theft and payroll fraud do not affect them, this is far from the truth. The state loses an estimated $136 million per year due to construction payroll fraud.

This is both unfair to law-abiding companies that compensate their employees fairly and cheats citizens out of tax money that could go towards improving essential public services. Wage theft hurts our entire community.

As my family grows along with my connection to the state, it is our goal to buy a home here in Minnesota. However, as the value of construction has only increased during the pandemic, my wages have gone down or stayed the same, when not stolen from me. I’m building houses, meanwhile I can’t afford one for my family.

In 2019, Minnesota passed one of the toughest laws against wage theft in the country thanks to the organizing of low-wage workers. However, many developers play by their own rules, don’t follow the laws, and cheat some of the most essential workers out of our hard-earned salaries.

Developers must work together with workers to change this industry. Community engagement and the education of workers about their rights is needed now more than ever, which is why I’m a member of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL).

Construction workers with CTUL are calling on developers to sign on to the Building Dignity and Respect Standards Program, an independent monitoring program with the goal of empowering workers to be frontline monitors and get to the root causes of wage theft, labor trafficking and other problems in the industry.

There are solutions to wage theft in the non-union construction industry. If workers and developers can come together to end wage theft and other injustices, we can have power to change and improve the non-union construction industry for everyone in our community.

This piece was dictated to Isa Escalona, communications organizer for Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL), in Spanish and translated into English.

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Mario Segura
Mario Segura

Mario Segura is a construction worker and a member of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL). Mario lives in Eagan, Minnesota with his family.