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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
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Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis

Remarks of Secretary Hilda L. Solis
State of the Administration Speaker Series
Washington, D.C.
The Blair House
Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Good afternoon, buenas tardes, Ahsuhlah-moo.

Thank you for the invitation to speak with you here today.

It's a pleasure to discuss the Department of Labor's priorities and how our efforts are protecting workers in this country, as well our focus on international efforts to ensure workers around the world prosper in the global economy.

Protecting the rights of workers has been a passion of mine for over 20 years.

Growing up in a home where both of my parents were immigrant union members, taught me the value of a hard day's work.

My father is of Mexican descent and my mother is Nicaraguan.

They taught me that injustices in the workplace exist and that workers need a voice on the job.

So, when the President asked me to join his Cabinet and to lead this agency, I was not only humbled, but I was also honored.

I was humbled to lead this agency because I believe in its mission — which is to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States.

We also strive to improve working conditions; advance opportunities for sustainable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights.

And I'm proud to say that under the Obama Administration we are not only meeting the goals of our mission, but we are exceeding them.

From the first day I took office, I had one goal in mind. And that goal is to provide good and safe jobs for everyone.

And let me tell you what I mean by "good and safe jobs":

  • Jobs that support a family by increasing incomes and narrowing the wage gap;
  • Jobs that are safe and secure, and give people a voice in the workplace through the right to organize and bargain collectively;
  • Jobs that are sustainable — like green jobs — that export products, not jobs.
  • And jobs that rebuild a strong middle class.

Since we have taken office, the Department of Labor has played a vital role in helping workers during these difficult economic times.

We have provided much needed safety-net programs such as unemployment benefits, helping millions of Americans pay for food to put on the table and other essentials.

We also have made strategic changes in our workforce training programs, providing workers with the opportunity to upgrade their skills for the jobs and careers of the future.

Jobs like the ones the President talked about in this State of the Union speech, such as:

  • Renewable and clean energy;
  • Allied health; and
  • Information technology; to name a few.

And while we are providing job training to American workers, we are also focused on their safety and health.

I have always said — it's not a good job, unless it's a safe job.

And I'm proud to say that we have a renewed focus and commitment to worker safety, which has produced immediate results for workers and businesses.

But while we remained focused and committed to American working families, we are committed to working with our global partners to help workers and businesses succeed as well.

Last year, for the first time in history, the Labor and Employment Ministers from the world's G20 nations met.

We organized the meeting here at the request of President Obama, and I hosted it at the Department of Labor, in April of 2010.

This meeting offered an unprecedented opportunity to tackle one of the worst global economic crises: the loss of millions of jobs.

The goal of that meeting was to find a path to a more balanced global economy — one it which workers are prepared for jobs of the future, are more productive, and able to share in the benefits of that productivity.

Some of our recommendations also emphasized the need to improve the quality of jobs.

We want to reverse the trend where productivity and revenue is growing, but wages remain stagnant.

We and other G20 nations are building on these pro-worker and pro-growth labor market policies.

France recently announced that it will host a G20 Labor and Employment Ministers' meeting next September.

Planning has just begun, but we understand the French government hopes to build on these themes and look for ways to advance our common agenda.

Our work on the G20 is an excellent example of how we work with your governments to develop good policies for workers and their families.

But we are also very interested in practical, on-the-ground ways to tackle the challenges workers face.

At Labor Department we are supporting very successful programs that provide tangible results.

Ten years ago, under President Bill Clinton, we launched a new strategy called "Better Factories Cambodia" to help low -paid workers in developing countries.

It was a trade agreement between Cambodia and the U.S. that would give more market access for Cambodia exports to the U.S. in return for improved working conditions.

The experiment in Cambodia gradually transformed the conditions for workers and helped to speed up the economic development of the country.

Today, the program is called "Better Work" and it has demonstrated an effective way to both improve labor conditions and spur economic development.

Better Work is a unique model.

It challenges factory owners to abide by worker protections or be subjected to scrutiny by international buyers.

Big international brands do not want to risk their reputations.

No one wants CNN or BBC to expose poor labor practices in one of the factories producing their products.

Better Work partners with the International Labor Organization to conduct the factory monitoring according to international labor standards.

The ILO is a U.N. agency, independent and credible.

Transparency is also a key feature of the Better Work model.

The results of the factory monitoring visits are posted publically on the internet.

In short the program is important because:

  • Factories have an incentive to improve conditions to get more orders.
  • Buyers have better information to protect their reputations.
  • Governments see growth and investment as more orders are directed to their industry.
  • And workers benefit from better working conditions and more jobs.

When jobs grow, it improves the lives of workers and their families.

In addition to Cambodia, new Better Work programs have been launched in Haiti, Jordan, Lesotho, and Vietnam.

And in July, we agreed with the Government of Nicaragua to launch a Better Work program there.

If you would like more information on the program, please don't hesitate to contact us.

We are always looking for partners that want to support and build on successful programs.

I think that it clear that protecting vulnerable workers abroad is a part of our overall efforts here at the Department of Labor.

However, one of my primary goals has been to step up enforcement efforts on behalf of all workers, including children, here at home and around the globe.

I believe that every child should have the chance to achieve his or her potential, to have an education and a childhood free from exploitation.

Parents should not have to depend on the labor of its children to put food on the table.

In 1999, the United States was one of the first countries to ratify ILO Convention 182, and since that time, has been a leader in supporting global efforts to combat child labor.

Convention 182 calls on countries to assist one another in efforts to address exploitative child labor, and I am proud that the United States has lived up to that commitment.

According to the International Labor Organization, more than 218 million children toil in child labor.

To eliminate child labor, our efforts have concentrated on three key facets:

First: education.

The word is out — spending resources to educate children, particularly girls, is one of the best investments a country can make in their economic future.

When a girl is educated, it better not only her life, but her families life and ultimately her country.

Second: poverty.

It's unfathomable that many parents have to rely on their children to work.

This is critical so that parents can build economic security, adequately provide for their families, and choose education — not labor — for their children

Third and lastly is awareness.

I am proud that, in 2010, the Department of Labor provided approximately $60 million for projects to combat child labor globally.

We have funded projects in Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Egypt, Jordan, Thailand, El Salvador, Bolivia and regional projects in West Africa.

Projects funded by my department since 1995 have already helped rescue close to 1.4 million children from exploitive labor and offer them new hope through education and training opportunities.

And here at in the United States I continue to work on behalf of all workers.

As I discussed a few minutes ago, worker protections in the United States is a critical part of our mission and we have devoted new resources to this.

When we talk about workers in the United States, though, we all know that includes workers that have migrated from other countries

This is an issue I care very deeply about.

As we all know, migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse.

In addition, they tend to work in sectors — such as construction, farming, and janitorial — that tend to be more dangerous than others.

But there is a challenge: how do we reach out to these workers since they may not know they have rights in this country.

Workers from other countries may not be aware that they are entitled to certain rights including safe, clean working conditions and getting paid minimum wage and overtime.

They may be afraid of violations of their rights because it may mean losing their job or lead to more abuse.

That is why; we are developing new partnerships to reach the most vulnerable workers where they are more likely to go for help — like their own country's consulates.

This allows us to identify problems that we might not have detected otherwise.

The Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division and Occupational Safety and Health Administration, have worked in partnership with the Mexican Embassy.

We work together to provide information on U.S. laws on wages and fair pay, and crucial information on safety and health to Mexican migrant workers.

The partnership we have had with Mexico is a model program.

To date, our Wage and Hour Division has recovered more than $21.5 million in unpaid wages on behalf of more than 15,000 workers.

Our Occupational Safety and Health Administration has signed 12 International Alliance Agreements with Mexican Consulates throughout the United States.

The Alliances provide safety and health outreach, education, and training to Mexican workers.

On a national level, OSHA provides a toll-free phone number staffed by multilingual operators who are ready, day and night, to receive worker calls.

Now that we have had some years of success to show for our partnership with the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, my plan is to expand the program.

I have spoken with some of you about establishing similar programs already.

However, if we haven't spoken yet and you are interested, please let us know.

We are looking for good partners to ensure that workers everywhere — whether here or abroad — are able to enjoy good jobs.

Providing good and safe jobs for everyone is our goal at the U.S. Department of Labor.

But it is my hope that our goal is one that we can all strive for in this global community and in this integrated global economy.

This is our challenge and I know that working together, we will meet this challenge.

Thank you.