The Vital Connection Between Cities and Grassroots Organizations

How Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha is elevating labor trafficking as an issue and making workers safer in Minneapolis

The Partnership for Freedom awarded grants to four organizations that address labor and sexual exploitation in their communities. Minneapolis-based Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (Center for Workers United in Struggle, or CTUL) received funds to support their efforts to reach low-wage workers that have traditionally been vulnerable to abuse, including construction workers and retail janitorial staff. Pathways to Freedom recently spoke with Ruth Schultz, CTUL’s organizing director, and Samantha Serrano, a once-exploited worker now trained as a CTUL leader, about the importance of grassroots efforts and how organizations like CTUL can partner with city governments to reduce worker vulnerability and create conditions where workers feel safe reporting exploitative conditions.

Pathways to Freedom: One reason CTUL received a Pathways to Freedom grant is that you work on the ground to remind workers of their rights and organize workers. How do these efforts help fight labor trafficking in Minneapolis?

Samantha (translated by Ruth): We’re an organization formed by workers with the vision of educating other workers about the problem of exploitation. I was exploited myself but left being a victim behind by getting trained through CTUL and becoming a leader to educate others about their rights and motivate them to take action. CTUL’s approach is special because I and other formerly-exploited leaders are in a unique position that make other workers more open to talking about what’s happening in their jobs. Our goal is to identify injustices happening against workers and to get to the root of those problems.

Pathways to Freedom: Can you give an example of a CTUL victory?

Ruth: Our Retail Cleaning Campaign convinced several big box retailers to address the unfair way their subcontracted cleaning companies treated janitorial staff. Because many cleaning jobs are contracted out, retailers don’t have to put normal employee protections in place for janitors, which means many janitors are fearful and discouraged from unionizing. In the work place and they then often face wage theft, are denied benefits, and are overworked.

CTUL arranged for workers to sit down with Target store management to figure out how they could have better wages, time off, and fair working conditions. As a result, Target instituted a Responsible Contractor Policy for their janitorial contracts. Workers organized and won a voice on the job and are now earning more than minimum wage. It was a big victory in raising the standard for a vulnerable worker population so they are more stable and less vulnerable to traffickers.

Pathways to Freedom: Construction is another industry guilty of putting vulnerable workers at risk. How can CTUL and Minneapolis work together to address issues that can lead to labor trafficking on construction sites?

Ruth and Samantha: As CTUL interacted with and supported exploited workers, we came across labor trafficking in the construction industry. We are proud that we brought the first labor trafficking case in any Minnesota local jurisdiction against a subcontractor in that industry. However, we would like to have a result similar to the Target one, which means developers who construct buildings need to acknowledge their own role in depressing wages and working conditions to the point that labor exploitation and trafficking can and does occur. They also need to ensure worker rights are being respected.

Cities can help us reach that goal by passing ordinances that protect workers from labor exploitation and raise standards so they are less vulnerable. For example, that Minneapolis has passed a Safe and Sick Time ordinance, and a strong minimum wage ordinance. Moreover, cities have a role to play in bringing powerful companies in the mix to talk with workers about setting fair standards that prevent labor trafficking in the construction industry.

Pathways to Freedom: What are some other steps cities can take to protect all workers from exploitation?

Ruth: Local governments can do a lot to support worker rights, and enforcement is one key area. The more enforcement we have—the more agents we have reviewing businesses and working with community groups like ours to know where problem areas are—the better off we’ll be.

Additionally, when local governments set up labor standards, there should be enough staff to do proactive investigations. We’ve learned that when the city relies on workers to report, a lot goes unseen and untouched. This is a new area, but it is critical that labor standards departments get out into the field to see what’s happening.

Pathways to Freedom: Why is it important for groups like CTUL to work hand-in-hand with city government?

Ruth: Cities and community organizations must work in cooperation to ensure we can find and stop exploitation and violations, because no one organization or institution will have that kind of reach. Some communities are less likely to call and complain to an investigator, so they need organizations like ours that they trust. We have the opportunity to dig deep and train worker leaders about things like sick time and minimum wage who then own the role of making sure their communities and coworkers know about laws and what to do if they see a violation. However, knowing your rights and feeling powerful enough to report it without fear of retaliation is another, which is why a co-enforcement model with the city, which we have here in Minneapolis, has great potential.

Pathways to Freedom: What challenges have you come across in terms of educating workers, elevating the problem of labor trafficking, or working with city government?

Samantha: One of our biggest challenges is helping workers lose their fear. I’ve seen workers in terrible situations who are too afraid to do anything about it. We always bring a lot of legal and moral support when we educate workers. That kind of support is very time consuming and a lot is invested in a small group of workers, which makes it challenging to reach more people. That’s why our purpose is to prevent and stop trafficking rather than responding when people are in crisis. If we have worker ambassadors from a breadth of industries—including retail, janitorial, construction and food service—where we know violations occur, we can then empower more people to report violations to the city without fear.

Ruth: To finally end labor trafficking and exploitation, we need to reframe the narrative. Labor trafficking is more than just a few bad apples hurting vulnerable people—the problem is broad and systemic. Part of our challenge is helping people understand how industries—including some with beloved companies—drive down what they are willing to pay for labor, which in turn harms those at the bottom of the chain. While it may be true that the exploiters and traffickers themselves are bad apples, it’s also true that the conditions that allow them access to vulnerable people are created by those who benefit from another person’s exploitation.

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About Pathways to Freedom

Pathways to Freedom calls on cities to take urgent action to prevent human trafficking and address the unmet needs of survivors. This third challenge of the Partnership for Freedom focuses on challenging assumptions, spurring innovative city-wide responses, and sharing local solutions. Humanity United and the NoVo Foundation lead this final challenge in collaboration with 100 Resilient Cities.

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