(CNSNews.com) - U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis today signed "partnership" agreements with ambassadors from a group of Latin American nations aiming to protect what she described as the labor rights of both legal and illegal migrants working in the United States.
During the signing ceremony hosted at Labor Department headquarters in Washington D.C., Solis said the agreements are aimed at educating migrant workers, regardless of how they got here, about their rights under U.S. law and to help prevent them from being abused in the workplace, either through wages, loss of job, or deportation.
When asked by CNSNews.com, she made clear the agreements aim at protecting both documented and undocmented workers inside the United States.
In her address at the signing ceremony, Solis asserted that all migrant workers have a “right to a legal wage”--even though the Labor Department itself states that under U.S. law, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), “employers may hire only persons who may legally work in the United States (i.e., citizens and nationals of the U.S.) and aliens authorized to work in the U.S.”
The INA “protects U.S. citizens and aliens authorized to accept employment in the U.S. from discrimination in hiring or discharge on the basis of national origin and citizenship status," states the Labor Department Web site.
Nevertheless, during the signing ceremony today, Solis said, “No matter how you got here or how long you plan to stay, you have certain rights. You have the right to be safe and in a healthy workplace and the right to a legal wage. We gather here today to strengthen our shared commitment to protect the labor rights of migrant workers in the United States. Unfortunately, due to language barriers and immigration status, migrant workers can be those that are most vulnerably abused.”
“We’re committed to ending that abuse and in a few moments we’ll sign a new partnerships between the Department of Labor and the embassies of Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador,” she said. “These are pledges between our governments to work together to educate migrant workers about their labor rights and prevent abuses in the workplace.”
“During the past year, we’ve signed similar agreements with the embassies--and I’m very proud of this--the embassies of Mexico, Nicaragua, and Guatemala,” said Solis, “and going forward we’ll be pursuing accords with governments from South East Asia and others in the Caribbean wanting to educate and protect those most vulnerable workers that live and reside in this country.”
“We understand that many migrant workers in America are afraid to report mistreatment because it can lead to more abuse, the loss of job, a job, or deportation,” she said. “With these partnerships we seek to remove those fears.”
CNSNews.com spoke to Solis on video after the ceremony about U.S. labor laws, asking, “Both documented and undocumented workers will be protected under U.S. labor laws?”
“It has always been the case under previous Republican as well as Democratic administrations. All we’re doing is enforcing the law and we’re allowing for other individual groups and partnerships with other consulate offices to work with us in expanding our reach in information,” Solis said. “What we’re trying to avoid is that vulnerable communities be abused and that there be an increase in more underground activity, economic activity that goes untapped, those monies that are being paid to workers.”
“In some cases taxes aren’t being appropriately paid, those taxes should go into our [U.S.] Treasury, and if everyone is brought out of the shadow in that manner, then we’ll have more assistance to protect people, we’ll have better competitive businesses,” she said. “It’s not fair for businesses who come into this country or are working in this country now and abuse workers. So we’re trying to rectify that and with that we hope that there will be more awareness and there’ll be better, how can I say, policies and documentations that can counter all that negativity that we’re seeing occurring when we’re seeing a downturn in our economy. That’s when most vulnerable are abused when there’s a downturn in the economy.”
Altogether, the envoys to the United States that have signed the agreements include those from the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, and El Salvador. Also, envoys from Mexico, Nicaragua, and Guatemala had signed the agreement prior to today’s ceremony.
On Monday, Solis said, “Immigrant workers are an important part of our American labor force fabric,” adding that they work in jobs that are “low paying and difficult to do, but they also pay taxes, they pay rent, they buy groceries, and some even open businesses and we’re grateful for their contribution to our economy.”
According to the Labor Department, the declarations signed today state that the department’s Wage and Hour Division will “protect the rights of migrant workers in low-wage industries such as hospitality and agriculture, while OSHA [the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration] will continue efforts to improve workplace safety and health conditions as well as provide outreach and assistance to Spanish-speaking workers and employers.”
Under the declarations, the embassies and consulates that signed the agreements will work with the regional enforcement offices of OSHA and the Wage Hour Division to disseminate information about U.S. health, safety, and wage laws.
Two labor union leaders were invited to speak at today’s ceremony, Eliseo Medina from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union’s Joseph Hansen.
Today’s ceremony marked the first day of Labor Rights Week, which was started by the Mexican consulate in 2009. During Labor Rights Week, the Labor Department works in conjunction with 50 Mexican consulates across the nation to bring U.S. labor law education to migrant workers and their employers.
This year’s Labor Rights Week is focused on migrant women in the workplace.
“On behalf of President Barrack Obama, we stand together to denounce hatred, violence, and prejudice and recommit ourselves to protecting migrant women in the American workplace,” said Solis at today’s event.
Speaking Spanish to the ambassadors who attended the event, Solis vowed to continue fighting for immigration reform in this country.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, a component of the Department of Homeland Security, in a June 17 memo, directed its officials to use “prosecutorial discretion” in deciding which illegal aliens to remove from this country, including those involved in union organizing or who have legitimate complaints about employment discrimination or housing conditions.