A Crystal man has been charged with labor trafficking after hiring immigrants in the country illegally as part of his construction crew, and threatened to turn them in to ICE unless they worked long hours in unsafe conditions.
The charge of labor trafficking is rarely brought in Minnesota, according to Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, but it is a law that Ricardo Batres, 46, allegedly broke during 2017.
Through his company, American Contractors and Associates LLC, Batres allegedly hired a number of undocumented immigrant workers to complete wood framing and wall board installation construction work.
He ordered them to work 10-12 hour days Monday through Saturday, and the occasional Sunday, without paying them overtime.
At times they were asked to work at heights of 6 stories without having the necessary safety equipment, which in turn led to several workers suffering injuries, including when they stepped on nails, had walls fall on them, or they fell from buildings.
When workers began to get injured, Batres told them not to seek medical attention otherwise they would lose their jobs, and that they would be deported for working illegally in the U.S.
Batres had also put the workers up in an "overcrowded house" in Bloomington with no hot water.
On July 5, 2017 as the injuries mounted, a group of workers decided they couldn't work for Batres anymore.
At this point he stopped paying their rent, and on the morning of July 11, the men left their house to be confronted by Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) officers.
Several were deported while a few others were kept in custody as their immigration cases proceeded.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline describes labor trafficking as "modern-day slave labor," where employers use fraud, force or coercion to keep someone working for them against their will.
Underpayment turns into slave-labor
Of the workers detained by ICE, one was able to get an immigration bond and was released, only to find Batres waiting for him.
Batres offered his own home to make his weekly check-in call to ICE and helped him fill out his paperwork in English.
During one of the weekly meetings, Batres told the worker: "Don’t leave me, you have to continue working with me until we finish this. If you try to leave, I can harm you. If you leave me, you’ll lose all of the good opportunities you have with me."
He also told the worker he'd spent $13,000 on attorneys and bail to get him out of ICE custody, and that the worker would have to work for him to pay off the debt.
Over the next few months, Batres used the worker's immigration status to force him to keep working for him, and threatened him with deportation on several occasions.
This continued until November, when the worker was seriously hurt when a wall fell on him, suffering spinal injuries that required hospital treatment.
Batres accompanied him as his "translator," but lied to hospital staff about how the injury occurred so they didn't know it was a workplace injury.
After coercing the worker to lie about how he was injured, thus avoiding having to report the incident to worker's compensation insurance, some $45,000 of public funds was spent on the worker's care, including $10,000 from MinnesotaCare and $31,000 from Medicaid.
"By underpaying and failing to purchase worker’s compensation insurance, Mr. Batres took work away from employers and their workers who were playing by the rules,” Freeman said on Wednesday.
"Further, when one of his employees was seriously injured, he claimed it did not happen on a worksite and government agencies and charities paid thousands of dollars to help with the injured man’s care. This is reprehensible. We will vigorously prosecute Mr. Batres and we hope this serves as a warning to developers and general contractors to not turn a blind eye to this kind of illegal activity."
As well as labor trafficking, Batres has also been charged with insurance fraud and theft by swindle.