Dear Secretary Hilda Solís,
Amigos y amigas,
I am honored to be here with you today in the Labor Rights Week national kick-off event. The Labor Rights Week is part of a high-impact outreach strategy that aims to increase awareness and inform the Mexican, and Latino community in general, of their fundamental labor rights. I find it especially relevant that this year's theme is “Women in the workplace”. While 13% of US labor force is made of Hispanic women, we still have a long way to go to make true gender equality in the workplace a reality and this is particularly true for Latino women. And today, we are also witnessing the expansion of the cooperation arrangements for labor.
We could not be here today if it were not for the leadership and commitment that Secretary Hilda Solis and the many officials at the Department of Labor have demonstrated to ensure that Labor laws are respected, regardless of the nationality or immigration status of workers. Indeed, labor rights are rights for everyone.
I am also delighted to be here a year after Secretary Solis and I renewed the strong partnership Mexico and the Department of Labor have established over the years. This partnership has allowed us to provide Mexican and Mexican-American workers with much better access to knowledge and resources to file complaints in labor-related cases.
Nowadays, through our partnerships with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Wage and Hours Division of the Department of Labor, we have multiplied and deepened the avenues for empowering our immigrant population to defend their rights to a safe workplace, to compensation for workplace injuries, to minimum wage and overtime, to nondiscrimination and the right to collective actions, among many others.
The arrangements that my fellow ambassadors have signed in the past, and those that several will be signing today, represent a privileged opportunity to deepen our existing collaboration with Federal and state labor authorities, and to create larger and positive synergies for all our nationals. This is an instance in which one plus one is much more than two.
Thanks to our collaboration, we have reaped multiple success stories. Allow me to highlight just a couple of them. Only last year, Reyna, a Mexican national who had attended a workshop on labor rights offered by a union in our Consulate in Anchorage, Alaska, was able to submit a complaint for her accident while working for a Janitorial company. Thanks to the investigation by the Workers Compensation Division of Alaska's Department of Labor, Reyna was reimbursed for her medical expenses, in the order of over 10,000 dollars. She received her compensation, and moreover, a thorough investigation has begun on the reiterated abuses of this particular janitorial company.
Far away from Alaska, in Manhattan, Kansas, the Wage and Hours Division of the Department of Labor was able to recover over 178,000 dollars in salaries of Mexican farm workers from a local company, which had been paying them less than what their H2A contracts stipulated. In this case, through our Consulate, we worked hand in hand with the Department of Labor to locate the Mexican farm workers who had returned to their home state of Chihuahua and hand them their money orders.
These are just two examples. But from 2007 until August of 2011, our consular network has processed 9,601 labor related cases; and more importantly, the decisions on 5,962 of them have been in favor of Mexican nationals. That is a 62% rate of positive outcomes. This would not have been possible without the strategic partnership with the Department of Labor; a strong collaboration with a network of community-based organizations, including unions; and the commitment of all the consular officials in the field. My thanks to all of them.
Madame Secretary, colleagues,
With the immigrant workers protection framework that we have been consolidating over time, we are also promoting a better understanding throughout America of the critical and complimentary role that immigrant workers play in the labor force of this nation. Safe and orderly immigration flows should be viewed as a strategic resource that can help meet labor market needs while protecting U.S. wages and working conditions, of our sisters and brothers in the labor movement of this nation, and support economic growth and competitiveness throughout North America.
As I have repeatedly underscored migrants are not a threat to the prosperity of the US; they are important actors in the fabric of what makes the U.S. a great nation. These are hardworking, often taxpaying, ambitious, and brave young women and men whose solid values and work-ethic enrich this country and contribute greatly to its prosperity and well-being.
I don’t believe that increased labor standards enforcement will drive employers and employees into the informal economy. To the contrary: with effective labor enforcement we can push back against an economy in the shadows that puts undocumented immigrants at the mercy of unscrupulous employers and that exploits a cheap source of labor while depressing wages for everyone else. And in doing so, we create space for a balanced and informed conversation on a much-needed immigration reform.
With the US economy and job creation still recuperating, the enforcement of labor laws has also become an even more critical concern. This is particularly true for low-wage workers, especially unauthorized immigrants, who face challenges ranging from nonpayment of wages and poor working conditions to unrealized collective bargaining rights, and whose vulnerability affects labor standards compliance by employers.
It is at challenging times that our shared values are put to the test. We must, therefore, be more vigilant than ever. We must empower workers so that fewer violations to their rights remain unreported or unseen. Only through ever-growing trust and cooperation with relevant authorities will we succeed at preventing and deterring abuses that should not occur in the 21st century workplace.
Labor Rights Week should become a year-round reminder that we cannot all thrive together if we don’t ensure that enough ladders are left down for everyone to have a fair shot at climbing them and prospering. As Cesar Chavez once said, “our accomplishments cannot be undone; our cause doesn't have to be experienced twice.” Let us all, workers and employers never forget that, and understand that what we have set out to do today is a win-win for all.