This Labor Rights Week, Aug. 26-30, we honor the contributions of all workers and reaffirm our commitment to making sure their workplaces are fair and safe. As Secretary Perez has said, our goal here at the department is to promote and expand opportunity for all people working in the United States. To do that, we must strictly enforce the laws protecting workers, their wages and their safety, and we must make sure that all at-risk workers in this country understand their rights.
The Fair Labor Standards Act guarantees that most workers are entitled to at least the minimum wage and overtime. At its heart is the promise that an honest day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay. The Wage and Hour Division of the Labor Department enforces that law. Since 2009, our investigations on behalf of workers have led to agreements by employers to pay nearly a billion dollars in back wages to more than a million workers nationwide. That money was rightfully earned by hardworking people who need to feed their families, clothe their children, and pay the rent and other bills.
The Wage and Hour Division also protects the rights of migrant workers, and those in certain temporary worker programs, regardless of their citizenship status. We know that migrant and seasonal laborers, workers with limited English proficiency, and members of immigrant communities may be unaware of their rights in the workplace or afraid to exercise those rights. Many are often misclassified as independent contractors, and, as a result, denied proper wages and other benefits such as protected leave for medical and family situations. We want them to know that it is safe to come to us for help.
The Wage and Hour Division has staff across the country ready to help, including employees who speak a language other than English. We also have more than 200 publications and materials translated into 11 different languages, available here. Workers can obtain confidential help by calling 1-866-4US-WAGE (487-9243).
Worker safety and health is vital to creating opportunity. Every worker should be able to return home safe and sound at the end of every day. A healthful workforce sustains businesses and local communities, and spurs the American economy. By law, employers must provide a safe workplace for everyone. For more than 40 years, the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has enforced this requirement.
As part of its ongoing efforts, one of OSHA’s most important jobs is to make sure that vulnerable workers – such as those who are young, have limited English proficiency or work in high-hazard industries – are protected. Many young and foreign-born workers labor in dangerous jobs, and without proper training, education and personal protective equipment, they are vulnerable to serious illness and injury. This also includes day laborers and temporary workers, who are too often deprived of their rightful benefits and protections. These groups of workers can be especially vulnerable to hazards like heat illness and falls from heights.
It’s crucial for workers to receive training and information in a language and vocabulary they can understand, so OSHA has staff across the country who speak languages other than English, and a toll-free number where workers can call and get confidential information and assistance. OSHA also has created a Spanish-language home page and has translated more than 100 of its safety and health publications into Spanish and other languages. Information about workers’ safety and health rights is available at www.osha.gov/workers. To report a workplace safety or health hazard or learn more about your rights, call 1-800-321-OSHA (6742).
Since 2004, the Labor Department has partnered with foreign embassies and many of their consulates to reach out to foreign-born, at-risk workers here in the U.S. Our partnerships are primarily with Mexican consulates, but also with many other countries in Latin America, as well as the Philippines. During Labor Rights Week 2013, we’re again partnering with other nations, local organizations and advocacy groups to reach these workers, and connect with employers to help them comply with the law. Officials from the Wage and Hour Division and OSHA have been engaged in workshops and presentations in Houston, Chicago and Los Angeles, and many other cities across the country.
Our ultimate goal is to achieve employer compliance on behalf of the workforce. To do that, we have to change behaviors. Empowering workers and educating employers is key. Labor Rights Week and the partnerships we’re re-establishing will help ensure countless lives will be saved and injuries prevented. They will also ensure that fewer workers struggle to afford the basics and make ends meet.
Laura Fortman is the principal deputy administrator for the department’s Wage and Hour Division. Dr. David Michaels is the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.