San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

U.S. Labor boss pushes for immigrants’ rights

From the print edition

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Labor Secretary Hilda Solís, 54, took her seat on Capitol Hill in 2009 as the first Hispanic woman to serve in the U.S. Cabinet, but growing up in Los Angeles, Solís didn’t meet such applause.

As a senior at La Puente High School east of Los Angeles, her guidance counselor hinted she wasn’t exactly college material.

“He told me I was best suited for office work and suggested that I become a secretary,” recalled Solís, who would one day follow her counselor’s advice – only not in a way he could have imagined at the time.

The ambitious student, raised along with six other children by her Nicaraguan mother and Mexican father, went on to earn degrees from the California State Polytechnic University and the University of Southern California, and entered politics in 1992.

As congresswoman, Solís represented California’s 31st and 32nd districts in the House of Representatives from 2001-2009. 

At a June 11 signing ceremony at Labor Department headquarters, the Hispanic pioneer met with the ambassadors of Ecuador, Honduras, Peru and the Philippines. Under the partnership agreements signed that day, the department’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) as well as its Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will cooperate with the local consulates of all four countries, reaching out to migrant workers in the United States with information about U.S. health, safety and wage laws.

“The Department of Labor has already had such an agreement with Mexico since 2005. That’s really where the basis of this comes from,” Solís said. “I took it a step further, working with the Mexican Embassy and its consulates around the United States to get other Latin American countries on board,” she added.

Eventually, the embassies of Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala and India agreed to participate. The latest group brings the total number of countries in the program – known in Spanish as “Podemos Ayudar” (We Can Help) – to 10.

“Honduras is extremely pleased to sign these letters of arrangement with the Department of Labor, WHD and OSHA,” Honduran Ambassador Jorge Ramón Hernández said. “It marks an important step forward in the cooperation between our governments that will promote the respect and defense of migrant workers’ rights.”

The Labor Department would like to add Vietnam and several other Asian countries to the list, as well as expand its efforts around the Caribbean.

“Many of their people are working here but aren’t aware of their rights,” Solís explained in order to emphasize the fact that this also includes undocumented immigrants – a position for which she’s taken considerable heat from Republicans and Tea Party activists alike. Early on, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) questioned why taxpayers would spend money to ensure that illegal workers get help from the Labor Department while millions of unemployed Americans can’t find jobs.

“The role here is to elevate the protection of workers overall, and to let some of these industries know that they have an obligation to play by the rules,” the labor secretary said. “Many of these businesses are fully versed in these laws as well.”

Solís said that since taking over at the Labor Department, she’s hired more than 300 investigators fluent in Spanish, Vietnamese and Haitian Creole, as well as other languages, who go into the field and meet with workers. The goal is to minimize on-the-job injuries and wage violations by letting foreign workers here know their rights.

Getting the embassies involved, she said, “is a new way of doing business with existing resources that are already here in Washington. It’s an amplification of current rules and laws, empowering these communities and the churches, community-based organizations and other various entities that work with them.”

Solís noted that the program is not targeted at farm workers but rather service workers in construction, hotel and restaurant industries that tend to hire immigrants, particularly Hispanics.

“For example, we know that fatalities in the Hispanic community are very high in the construction industry,” she pointed out. “We’re rolling out different campaigns with OSHA: Protect yourself while you’re working outside, whether you’re a car-wash employee, an outdoor sales rep or even a restaurant employee working over a hot stove.”

Solís said the program has paid off in the form of other dividends.

“I knew the president of El Salvador [Mauricio Funes] when he was a congressman. And I’ve visited Nicaragua and worked out a labor agreement, under which the ILO [International Labour Organization] will help monitor for better worker protection in the garment industry.”

She added: “We’re working with the ILO to see how we can set better standards, so that when garments are being produced, you know they are going to have some kind of seal of approval saying they were not made by children or abused women. That’s a whole new set of standards that began under the Clinton administration, and we’re trying to expand that effort.”

A Los Angeles native, Solís is the third oldest of seven siblings — four sisters and two brothers; her parents met in citizenship class and married four years earlier. Her father, U.S.-born Raúl Solís, moved to Mexico at an early age and came back to the United States, where he worked on farms, on a railroad and as a shop steward for the Teamsters Union at a battery recycling plant in California’s San Gabriel Valley.

Her Nicaraguan-born mother, Juana Sequeira, spent 20 years working the night shift on the assembly line at toy manufacturer Mattel. She was a member of United Rubber Workers and was also an outspoken advocate for improved working conditions.

Labor issues were a common theme at the family dinner table – but so was the importance of doing well in school.

“My parents knew that the only way for their children to have a better life was to get an education,” Solís recalled. “Without their moral and spiritual support, I know I couldn’t have achieved so much. I was the first person in my family to go to college. I was a good student in high school, but I didn’t think about college. No one in my family ever had.”

Maybe that explains why education is such a critical factor in her approach today to dealing with the nation’s 8.2 percent unemployment rate – which she considers her most urgent priority as labor secretary. 

At present, more than 12 million U.S. residents are jobless, yet 3.7 million jobs remain unfilled across the country.

“We need to match qualified job seekers with jobs that are available now. So my department is making major investments in America’s community colleges and in worker-training programs in areas like science, technology, engineering and math, so we can out-educate, out-innovate and out-build our global competitors in the 21st century,” she said.

“At the same time, we cannot allow any worker to be denied their rightful pay or sacrifice their life for their livelihood. If we allow a few unscrupulous employers to exploit and underpay their workers, it sends a message that it’s OK to do in order to compete,” she added.

“That’s why we’re partnering with consulates to make sure all workers in America are treated fairly and paid fully for the work they do. We understand that many migrant workers in America are afraid to report mistreatment because it can lead to more abuse, the loss of their job or deportation. We’re making it easier for immigrant workers to come forward by partnering with the institutions where they are most likely to go for help, their country’s own consulates.”

In 2010, the Wage and Hour Division concluded 26,486 cases, finding more than $176 million in back wages for 209,814 employees. Hispanics filed a big portion of those claims because many came from construction, janitorial jobs and the poultry industry – all sectors in which Hispanics tend to be overrepresented.

Yet Solís is adamantly opposed to the idea of states like Arizona and Alabama playing the role of immigration cop. In those states, at least 70,000 jobs have been lost due to draconian laws that not only give police officers the right – but also make it a requirement – to check on the immigration status of people they pull over.

“You see industries suffering there. What happens to the businesses, the farmers, the grocery-store owners, the people who live and work in the community who now have to close their doors? It has a devastating domino effect. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been lost because people have left.”

 While pro-business groups have long viewed Solís as working against their interests and siding with big labor, on one issue she appears to agree with the U.S. business community: free trade.

Asked if the recently ratified free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea – which were bitterly opposed by the AFL-CIO and other unions – have helped or hurt U.S. workers, she said the agreements were a “win-win” for all the countries.

“For our farmers and ranchers here in the United States, the agreements will increase exports of agricultural products. From aerospace to electronics, it will increase American manufacturing exports, including those produced by our small businesses, and they will help level the playing field for American automakers,” Solís told The Tico Times, adding that “we insisted that Congress include a robust Trade Adjustment Assistance program so American workers who are negatively impacted by shifts in global trade can get high-quality retraining to thrive in the growth industries of the 21st century.

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