On Dec. 18, we observed International Migrants Day – a day dedicated to highlight the contributions of migrant workers and advocate for the full realization of their rights. We at the U.S. Department of Labor are committed to ensuring that all workers in the U.S., including migrant workers, have quality working conditions and their rights on the job are protected.
The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the first free trade agreement ever to contain specific provisions focused on migrant worker protections, helps us deliver on that commitment and ensure that rights and protections connect across borders and legal jurisdictions, following workers from when they are recruited to when they are on the job and until they return home.
It also includes historic provisions to promote gender equity and address discrimination. This is particularly important given that most people working in the U.S. under the agricultural (H-2A) and non-agricultural (H-2B) temporary work programs are from Mexico, and women migrant workers report facing issues such as gender discrimination and sexual harassment.
The Labor Department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs has a team dedicated to monitoring and enforcing these and other USMCA provisions. The bureau works closely with other U.S. government agencies to strengthen working conditions in the U.S., promote racial and gender equity, and ensure fair and ethnical recruitment practices for migrant workers. We do this because when we protect migrant workers from exploitation, address gender disparities, and combat discrimination and gender-based violence and harassment at work, we are creating safer, better working environments and raising standards for all workers.
Several agencies at the Labor Department jointly implement and enforce the laws governing temporary foreign worker programs, including the H-2A and H-2B visa programs. For example, the Employment and Training Administration administers the labor certification process to determine when foreign workers are needed. The Wage and Hour Division is responsible for investigating employer compliance with program obligations. During the past two fiscal years, the division concluded more than 800 investigations uncovering violations of these labor provisions, which resulted in nearly $12 million in back wages recovered for more than 14,500 workers, and more than $12 million in civil penalties assessed.
In October of this year, the Labor Department published a new final rule to strengthen protections for workers in the H-2A program and enhance the Wage and Hour Division’s enforcement against abuse, while modernizing the H-2A application and temporary labor certification process. This final rule strengthens protections for U.S. and Mexican H-2A workers, enhances enforcement capabilities, modernizes the process for determining the prevailing wage, improves housing standards, and provides clarity to employers and other stakeholders.
Other department agencies, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Women’s Bureau, also work to ensure that migrant workers of all genders and ethnicities are aware of and have access to full labor rights protections throughout the migration cycle, with particular attention to issues such as gender-based violence and harassment. And together with the Wage and Hour Division, they coordinate closely with the Mexican Embassy and its network of 50 consulates to connect workers to resources and remedies through the Consular Partnership Program.
Our joint work helps ensure that migrant workers know their rights and are protected on the job here in the U.S. We also recognize the importance of engaging community-based organizations, labor unions and migrant worker centers to reach migrant workers and ensure their rights are upheld. And we are working closely with the government of Mexico to facilitate safe, orderly and regular migration through a U.S.-Mexico bilateral working group on labor mobility.
All migrants deserve to be treated with respect and dignity at every step of their journey, and we are committed to ensuring that their labor rights are protected and that they have access to complaint mechanisms and redress if their rights are violated. Mexico is a close ally, one of our largest trading partners, and the country of origin of the majority of participants in U.S. temporary foreign worker programs. When Mexican citizens work in the U.S. they are entitled to protections under the U.S. labor laws that the Department enforces. The U.S. and Mexico will continue to collaborate under the USMCA to protect their rights and dignity.
Thea Mei Lee is the deputy undersecretary for international affairs. Follow ILAB on Twitter at @ILAB_DOL.