Yesterday marked the inauguration of National Labor Rights Week, a celebration which first began three years ago. The theme for this year is “Women in the Work Place.” I, along with our Children in the Fields Campaign Director Norma Flores López and the Children in the Fields Campaign Engagement Manager Vashti Kelly, witnessed the historic signing of agreements to protect the labor rights of migrant workers in the U.S. in recognition of National Labor Rights Week.
U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, in the company of Ambassador Aníbal de Castro of the Dominican Republic, Ambassador Muni Figueres Boggs of Costa Rica and Ambassador Francisco Altschul of El Salvador signed agreements at the event. The ambassadors of Mexico, Nicaragua and Guatemala who previously signed agreements, joined with them to affirm their collective commitment to make certain workers and employers have the information they need to know their rights and responsibilities, as well as ensuring labor laws are adhered to.
“This is such a special day. It’s a day when we come together to honor our responsibility to care for one another. And it’s a day that reminds all of us what makes America great,” said Secretary Solis. “Today, we renew our promise to everyone who does an honest day’s work in America. No matter how you got here or how long you plan to stay, you have rights. You have the right to a safe and healthy workplace and the right to a legal wage.”
Currently, it is estimated there are 2.5 million farmworkers in the U.S. working to harvest the foods American’s enjoy every day. Migrant workers, and women in particular, are one of the most vulnerable groups of workers in our country. They are frequently subject to mistreatment such wage and hour violations, sexual harassment, and violence, but are often afraid to report it. A good number put up with abuse because they are afraid to lose their jobs, they lack information on their rights, or they are fearful of the cultural and social stigma associated with the abuse. In the case of undocumented workers and those who are here on work visas, they are also fearful of deportation. Protecting migrant workers and providing them and their employers with information on how to get the help and tools they need is especially important—not just for the workers and employers, but for our economic livelihood.
“When migrant workers are made to work in unsafe conditions or not paid the wages they’re owed, it has a ripple effect across our whole economy. Labor law violations create downward pressures on the wages and working conditions of all workers. Most American businesses follow the law, but we know that a few bad actors can gain an unfair advantage over their competitors. Today, we take a historic step to level the playing field,” stated Secretary Solis.
Secretary Solis then described a confidential, toll-free hotline (1-866-487-9243) the Department of Labor established that migrant workers can call to report any problems they encounter.
“Our DOL Health & Safety inspectors and Wage & Hour investigators will work hand in hand with these consulates to correct injustices that migrant workers face. The consulates will help us communicate with workers who we might not otherwise be able to reach. They will put their workers in touch with our officials so we can investigate and stop abuses that occur.”
It seems particularly poignant that the event was held in the Frances Perkins Building at the U.S. Department of Labor. Perkins was appointed to the position of U.S. Secretary of Labor by Franklin D. Roosevelt. She was the first woman to hold a Cabinet position and served as U.S. Secretary of Labor for 12 years. Perhaps more importantly though, she is credited with securing social security, unemployment insurance, federal laws regulating child labor, and a federal minimum wage. We felt privileged as women and farmworker advocates to have been present for this historic event that displayed the Department of Labor’s commitment to protecting the rights of one of the most vulnerable and underserved segments of our population—migrant women. The Department of Labor with collaboration from the signatories’ consulates will hold events throughout the U.S. this week in honor of the National Labor Rights Week. To keep up-to-date on what is happening this week, follow @USDOL and the #NationalLaborRightsWeek conversation on Twitter and see what others are saying.