Skip to page content
Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
Bookmark and Share

Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis

Remarks for Secretary Hilda L. Solis
California Human Trafficking Leadership Symposium Luncheon
University of Southern California
Friday, November 16, 2012

Good afternoon. It's great to be back at USC, and I want to thank my alma mater for hosting this important symposium. I also want to thank California's outstanding Attorney General for her kind introduction and her steadfast leadership.

There's a word in Spanish for women like Kamala Harris. It's luchadora. The rough translation is a fearless woman who let's nothing — or no one — stand in her way. The Attorney General has made the war against human trafficking a statewide priority since her first day in office. She has been a tireless voice for the innocent victims of these crimes, and she has sent a clear message to traffickers operating in this state that they will be brought to justice. Attorney General Harris: On behalf of President Obama, I'm proud to have this opportunity to thank you for all that you've done. We're grateful to have you on our side.

We're also fortunate to have Attorney General Ibàñez as a key partner in this fight. As Attorney General of Mexico, she has worked hard to combat trafficking on both sides of the border. We're glad you're here with us today.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the many stakeholders in the room: state and local law enforcement; victims' advocates; faith leaders; and representatives from schools, nonprofits and private companies.

The report released today should be required reading for every official in our state, because the fastest-growing criminal enterprise in America is also the most hidden from public view. Today in California, there are victims of trafficking who are living — and working — in plain sight in our communities. We have to change the perverse calculus of gangs and smugglers who believe the rewards of trafficking outweigh the risks. Only by working together can we bring these criminals to justice. Only by working together can we give their innocent victims the courage to escape and start over.

I remember when my eyes were first opened to this problem. I was a state legislator in the California Assembly. We found Thai garment workers being held in virtual slavery in El Monte. I'll never forget that case. I'll never forget the brutal treatment those workers were forced to endure. I'll never forget the wage theft, the sexual assaults and 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.

The Department of Labor is just one agency of many that's taking part in a government-wide crackdown on this problem. You can hear the fire in President Obama's voice when he talks about this issue. He says we must call this outrage by its true name: modern-day slavery. When a migrant worker finds himself working in a factory or a field for little or no pay — and when he's beaten if he tries to escape — that's slavery. When a woman is locked in a sweatshop — or trapped in a home as a domestic servant, unable to leave — that's slavery. We all have an obligation to condemn it and punish it to the fullest extent of the law.

In September, the President announced a sweeping new plan to fight this problem here at home and abroad. Here's what we're doing:

First, we're strengthening training, so everyone from local law enforcement to investigators at the Labor Department understands the warning signs of trafficking: like locked doors and windows, a mattress lying in a back hallway of a business, or underfed or un-groomed workers. We're also improving sensitivity training so we treat victims like victims — not criminals. Until we gain their trust, they will not come forward and we cannot root out these crimes.

Second, we're turning the tables on the traffickers. They're using the Internet to exploit their victims, so we're using technology to stop them. We're making it easier for victims to find resources online to blow the whistle, and we're challenging college students to develop tools that young people can use to stay safe online and on their smart phones.

Third, we're doing more to help survivors recover. This includes referring them to authorities who can issues visas so they can can stay here and prosecute their oppressors. It includes an even stronger push to help them recover back wages and damages for all they've been through. It includes providing employment services to help get them on their feet. And it includes working with Congress to renew the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. It shouldn't matter if you are a Democrat or Republican. It's wrong to deny trafficking victims the support and resources they need to break free and get better. This is America, and we're better than that.

Fourth, we're taking action against forced labor in countries across the world. This administration has renewed sanctions against some of the worst abusers, like North Korea. Our State Department is working with foreign governments, so more countries pass and enforce modern anti-trafficking laws. And my department's Bureau of International Labor Affairs has funded more than 250 projects in more than 90 countries to combat the worst forms of child labor. Since 1995, our projects have prevented 100,000 children worldwide from being trafficked or forced into child labor.

We also publish lists of goods made with forced labor and the countries they come from. These lists are vital tools in the effort to stop the abuse of children on a global scale. They can have an enormous impact in the hands of governments that are committed to joining efforts to end the exploitation of young people. We also publish a report that monitors the worst forms of child labor in countries where we have trade agreements. This year, for the first time we're ranking their progress.

Fifth, we're doing extensive outreach to faith-based groups and other nonprofits to help them provide services to victims. They're doing the Lord's work, and we need to do everything in our power to support them.

Sixth, the President signed an executive order to enhance our zero tolerance policy regarding trafficking in federal contracts. The United States is the largest purchaser of goods and services in the world. The Obama administration is taking unprecedented steps to strengthen compliance, so American tax dollars are never used to fund this heinous activity.

Finally, we're looking inward. For the first time, the State Department's annual trafficking report now includes the United States, because we can't ask other nations to do what we're not doing ourselves. We've broadened our outreach so migrant workers know their rights. The intelligence community is devoting more resources to identify trafficking networks. I'm proud to report that last year, the United States charged a record number of traffickers with serious crimes. We're putting these predators where they belong — behind bars!

At the Department of Labor, we have an important role to play, too. We provide translation services during investigations, we work with law enforcement to bring traffickers to justice and we help recover restitution for victims. I've signed partnerships with dozens of foreign embassies and consulates so migrant workers know their rights and can go to the institutions they trust to seek help. We're also working with American businesses, providing tools and assistance to help them eliminate trafficking or child labor in their supply chains.

But prosecution and prevention is only part of this challenge. My department is also working to help survivors once they are out of harm's way. The workforce professionals at our 3,000 American Job Centers are receiving guidance about how to help survivors find jobs and become self-sufficient. Our Solicitor's Office and Wage and Hour Division are working together to secure millions of dollars in back wages and penalties to help them start over.

Some of the most cutting-edge cooperation is happening right here in Los Angeles. L.A. was one of six cities chosen last year to pilot anti-trafficking coordination teams. These teams bring together the Department of Justice, Homeland Security, the FBI, the U.S. Attorney and the Labor Department. Our folks are on the front lines of this battle. Nationally, I've hired hundreds of new investigators with bilingual skills. They're bridging language and cultural barriers, and they're earning the trust of workers in the factories and the fields. DOL staff meets regularly and share leads with law enforcement, so the police can do surveillance against suspected traffickers.

We helped a domestic worker from Peru who was brought to Los Angeles as a nanny. She was beaten, screamed at, and made to work 20 hours a day, cleaning and cooking for a fraction of the wages she had been promised. After two years of this abuse, her traffickers took her to an airport in Tijuana with a one-way ticket back to Peru. Working with the U.S. Attorney, we brought that nanny back to the United States and secured a conviction and jail time for her abuser.

In Paso Robles, we helped nine Filipinos brought to this country under false pretenses by the operators of a chain of nursing homes. They were promised steady employment, sanitary living arrangements, and good money to send back home to support their families. Instead, they were made to sleep in closets and unheated garages and forced work 24-hour shifts. Their passports were confiscated. They were threatened. And they were paid next to nothing. Well, my agency worked side by side with the Department of Justice. We recovered $600,000 for the victims. And today, as we speak, the owners of the nursing home are sitting in jail. My friends: Justice was served.

The late Justice Brandeis once said, "Most of the things worth doing in the world have been declared impossible before they were done." He's right. Let us not believe that we can't make a difference. Let us not give in to despair that this problem is too big or too complicated to solve. Instead, let's leave here today more resolved than ever to work together, to learn from one another and to innovate and collaborate. Let us not rest until we succeed. God bless you. And Godspeed.