I’ve got just one day here . . . but the schedule is packed!
First, an early morning meeting with El Salvador’s first lady, Vanda Giomar Pignato. Besides her ceremonial and social duties as the wife of the president, she is also El Salvador’s secretary of social inclusion, and oversees many of the country’s social services for at-risk children. I like her immediately, and our time flies by. Like me, she’s passionate about diversity issues, women’s issues, and kids. She is implementing very creative programs to include vulnerable populations that have been excluded from the real economy in the country. We see a lot in common in what we are both trying to do in our countries, and we promise to stay in touch.
Now off to a meeting with my Salvadoran counterpart, Minister of Labor Victoria Velásquez de Avilés, and other members of the Salvadoran cabinet. I announce a new U.S. government contribution of $10 million to support the Salvadoran government’s efforts to eradicate child labor. This initiative involves working closely with the government of El Salvador to combat the root causes of child labor in Comunidades Solidarias, communities that the Salvadoran government has identified as the most disadvantaged. It is estimated that 188,884 children work in El Salvador, representing 10.3 percent of minors ages 5 to 17. The minister is very pleased to know that we will soon be reaching out to the Salvadoran community working in the United States, to make sure they get educated about their labor rights.
I’ve been following our child labor efforts in El Salvador for some time. Right outside my office suite at the Labor Department’s headquarters in Washington is a large display of artwork, poetry, and essays from Salvadoran children participating in after school enrichment programs and other efforts we sponsor in El Salvador. The artwork is delightful and whimsical, and tells the story of our efforts in a way that only children can. It’s one of the first things I show visitors and dignitaries when they come to visit me.
I joke to the staff traveling with me that I should have packed my roller skates. My next stop is a meeting with the president of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes. We have a little bit of history. I first met him years ago in Los Angeles, when I was in Congress and he was getting ready to launch his presidential campaign. He came to the U.S. and reached out to several members of Congress seeking their support. During our visit, he tells me how grateful he was for that encounter, pointing out that I was one of the few members of Congress who took the time to meet with him, and he appreciated my advice. I remember being very impressed with him back then. I feel the same way today. He is knowledgeable about our efforts to combat child labor and has an obvious desire to make a difference. We talk about Better Work and our vision to extend it to El Salvador. He will certainly be an ally in making that possible.
Since meeting him and the first lady, I can’t help but be reminded of President and Michelle Obama. Both “first couples” are a lot alike: young, energetic, dynamic duos, with a passion for service to their country, and especially a passion and desire to better the lives of children in their respective nations.
My last scheduled event before leaving El Salvador is a luncheon at the U.S. Embassy. I have the opportunity to meet briefly with two former child laborers, Ana Deisi and Douglas. They both tell me how they benefited from U.S. DOL-funded projects that assisted working children. I’m fascinated by their stories and very proud of their success. As young adults, they now are both active members in their local community and are involved in programs to help children. I can’t help thinking that so many people talk about the “circle of poverty” . . . but Ana Deisi and Douglas represent the “circle of promise.”
I want to spend more time with them, but I’ve got a plane to catch to go home. A few hours after I land in Washington, I’ve got a major speech to deliver, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
On the way to the airport, I’m thinking that I should be exhausted, but I’m still on a high. The trip has been an awesome experience. I feel good about our work in Nicaragua and El Salvador, but know that there is still more to do. I’m anxious to get back to D.C. so I can get updated on other programs we sponsor to support worker rights and combat child labor around the world. Before I board the plane, I send a quick email from my blackberry to staff back at DOL, requesting that additional briefings be added to my schedule. Based on this trip, I have lots of questions . . . but even better, more ideas.
We’re going to make a world of difference for workers and children all over the world. We don’t have a moment to lose.