Leaders of Building Trades unions say contractor Genuine Builders has broken rules, exploited foreign workers and sidelined locals in its hiring practices at the ongoing expansion of the Meadowland Farm Co-op in Walnut Grove, Minn.
The Mankato Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents union construction workers across southwest Minnesota, held a news conference Thursday at the main offices of Meadowland Farm Co-op in Lamberton. They delivered a letter to the co-op board urging it to use contractors that employ locals, rather than relying on temporary foreign workers to build major projects.
Genuine Builders, which was hired to place concrete for the 2.8 million-bushel storage facility, has been identified by the Mankato Building Trades as a top user of a controversial H2B visa program that allows companies to employ foreign guest workers for construction tasks that are typically performed by locals.
Between January and July 2016, Genuine Builders applied for nearly 900 H2B visas for construction laborers – nearly twice as many as the second-leading applicant and a fifth of the roughly 4,100 applications filed across the United States during that period, the Building Trades said.
Genuine Builders’ request to employ 25 H2B workers at the Walnut Grove facility was certified on Feb. 8.
“Companies like Genuine Builders that use foreign guest workers are taking food off the tables of union and nonunion workers construction workers in southwest Minnesota,” said Mankato Building Trades President Stacey Karels. “There’s no shortage of hard-working locals who would have been happy to work on a big project for Meadowland Farm Co-op, and for Genuine Builders to pretend otherwise is just an insult to working families.”
Nate O’Reilly, a business agent for Ironworkers Local 512, explained that the unions are also concerned by Genuine Builders’ history of exploiting H2B workers and breaking program rules.
“In 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor required Genuine Builders to pay more than $180,000 for wage and overtime violations, and for taking H2B visa workers outside their authorized area,” said O’Reilly.
“They claimed it was an innocent mistake,” continued O’Reilly, “but in 2015, we caught them in Glencoe with H2B workers who were supposed to be in South Dakota and who said they’d been all over – North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Washington State. It seems like for Genuine Builders, the fines and back wages are just a cost of doing business.”
Laborers’ Union Local 563 member Joe Navejas believes that Genuine Builders has made it virtually impossible for locals to get jobs on their projects.
“I went to a Genuine Builders project to apply for a job, but no one seemed to know how it was supposed to work. It took three visits just to get a job application, and on my last visit, security threatened to have me arrested for trespassing because I didn’t work there. I submitted the application anyway, but never heard anything from the company. The message is local workers need not apply.”
The news conference was held “to let Meadowland know that we don’t think doing business with Genuine Builders is consistent with the values of a co-op with a long history of supporting local families and communities.,” said Karels. “We want to draw attention to the problem so future projects will be built by area workers who can support their families and the local economy.”