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Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis

Remarks by Hilda L. Solis, Secretary of Labor
National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development
12th Annual Convention,
Washington, DC
Monday, June 20, 2011

Good morning.

I want to start by thanking my good friend Kerry for that warm introduction. I actually ran into Kerry at LAX last Tuesday. I was coming back East after giving the commencement speech at Cal State LA.

It was great to see my old friend. It reminded me of how far we've traveled — and I don't mean all those frequent flier miles we've logged from L.A. to D.C.

One of my most vivid memories as lawmaker was the fight to help Thai garment workers who were held in virtual slavery in El Monte, California. I'll never forget that case. I'll never forget the brutal treatment of those workers. I'll never forget the wage theft, the sexual assaults, the fear those women lived with every day. It opened my eyes to the sweatshop conditions that still exist in America today. I carry that memory with me to work every day.

As a member of Congress, one in five of my constituents was an Asian American or Pacific Islander. As Kerry and I talked in the airport terminal last week, I thought about the incredible platform I've been given to make a difference as Labor Secretary.

Standing at LAX, Kerry and I were just one mile away from a restaurant in Westchester called Ayara Thai Cuisine. Two months ago, my department concluded an investigation of that restaurant. We found it had committed massive violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Management paid its workers far below the minimum wage. Many of them were AAPI. Management kept terrible records so there wouldn't be a paper trail to document their wrongdoing. Well, my Wage & Hour Division made that restaurant pay its 35 employees every penny it owed them in back wages — more than $162,000 total. And the restaurant agreed to broad policy changes to ensure this behavior never happens again.

When President Obama appointed me as his Labor Secretary, I said there was a new sheriff in town. And I meant it. If we hear about AAPI workers being exploited or mistreated under my watch, we will investigate. And justice will be served. That's my pledge to you.

I'm so glad to be back here among friends at National CAPACD. As we say in Spanish, nos conocemos. We know one another.

We fought together to reduce health disparities for people of color when I started the Tri-Caucus Summit as a member of Congress. Because we understand that the struggles of Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and native peoples are all part of a common struggle. When one of us is left behind, we're all left behind.

At the Labor Department, we know about the myth of the "model minority." While many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are living the American Dream, countless others are struggling just to get by.

"Model minority" sounds like a compliment, right? But when it's used as an excuse for governments to ignore the real needs of the AAPI community, it's not a compliment at all — it's a big problem.

You understand that the way to dispel this myth is to get better data, and I'm proud today to tell you that the Department of Labor is committed to providing you with the information you seek — the information that we need.

After all, good data is the foundation of good public policy. It's how we'll break down the myth of the "model minority" and get to the truth.

Accurate data will show that Asian Americans are unemployed longer than any other racial group — about 16 weeks on average. It will show that Asian-Americans are more susceptible to certain diseases — like Hepatitis B.

And it will help us make the case for more education and resources to prevent it.

Accurate data — broken down by ethnicity and national origin — will help us tackle the disparities the AAPI community faces in housing, education, employment and immigration.

If we look just at median averages, sure, the AAPI community looks good on paper.

But if we look closer at the latest census data, we see that the poverty rate for the Hmong community is 37.8 percent. For Cambodian Americans, it's 29 percent. For Laotian Americans, it's 19 percent. For Vietnamese Americans, it's 17 percent.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics is currently working on a special report that will allow us to analyze the AAPI employment picture in much greater detail. We will break down job data by AAPI sub-ethnic group. We will be able to pinpoint each community's unemployment rate...

How long different workers have been unemployed... What industries are hiring AAPI workers, and which aren't... What their immigration status is... And we will know the workers' ages, their gender, and their education level.

By getting more detailed information, we will be able to see certain traits emerge. Then, we can look at ways to create new programs and get AAPI populations the assistance they need. This is the first time that BLS has ever produced this type of data. We are proud to take this important step.

I don't have to tell you: These are challenging times to be fighting for low-income Americans. Congressional Republicans have used our fiscal situation to ram through cuts to important programs. Every federal agency, including mine, has been affected. We are being forced to do more with less, and we are relying on groups like yours to harness the collective power of private organizations, community groups, financial institutions and advocacy leaders.

But even in this tight fiscal climate, you have a leg up because of your proven collaborative model. There are still federal monies available. I want to tell you about three programs now accepting grant applications that could benefit job-seekers and workers in the AAPI community. You may want to write these down.

First, we have $240 million available under our H-1B Technical Skills Training Grants program to help workers find jobs in industries where employers use H-1B visas. We are using Workforce Investment Act grants to offer on-the-job training — with a special focus on the growing health care industry. The application deadline for this pool of grant money is November 17.

Second, we have $33 million available under our jobs accelerator challenge. This program focuses on supporting what are called "industry clusters." Some of the best-known clusters are the technology cluster in the Silicon Valley, the pharmaceutical cluster in North Carolina's Research Triangle Par, the financial services cluster in New York City, and the energy cluster in Houston. Other states like Idaho, Oregon and Washington participate in multi-state food manufacturing clusters.

So I encourage those of you who work near an industry cluster to explore grant funds under this program. You can learn more by going to www.grants.gov.

Finally, my department's OSHA is currently soliciting applications for $4.7 million in Harwood grants to keep workers safe on the job. At the Department of Labor, we are committed to serving all workers, including those whose primary language may not be English. So we've hired more multilingual investigators who have the language skills needed to make sure AAPI workers receive the wages they're owed. We're also engaged in a Department-wide effort to translate more of our documents — into eight different Asian languages.

As a result, more workers with limited English proficiency will be able to access our programs and services. But language isn't enough. Good government must be accessible in cultural ways, too.

In the aftermath of Gulf oil spill last year, we worked to ensure that Southeast Asian American shrimpers, crabbers and fisherman received safety training on cleanup procedures in a language they could understand. And we developed safety materials printed in Vietnamese.

We also awarded $1.9 million in emergency grant funds to help retrain workers in New Orleans. This included help for many Southeast Asian American workers in the fishing and seafood industries.

We're taking all of these important steps not just because it's the right thing to do, but also because it's vital to America's economic future.

In 2007, before the recession began to take hold, the unemployment rate for Asians was 3.2 percent. For Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander, it was 4.8 percent. Three years later, the Asian unemployment rate had more than doubled to 7.5 percent. For Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander, it had almost tripled to 12 percent. Yes, we have a lot of work ahead of us.

At the Labor Department, we are committed to providing AAPI workers with the tools they need to obtain good, safe jobs. As we continue our vital work together, I hope you know that you have a true friend — un gran amiga — at the Department of Labor.

Someone who understands the unique challenges — and unique potential — of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders... Someone who's committed to fighting for the most vulnerable members of our communities... And someone who will do everything in her power to be a resource for leaders like you, who "get it."

Remember: nos conocemos. We know one another

Thank you for working along side me to build a 21st century economy that leaves no one behind.

Good bless you.

God bless the AAPI community.

And God bless the United States of America.