Labor Secreatary Tom Perez said Monday he is renewing a partnership with the embassies of five countries to teach labor rights to immigrant workers in the U.S.
The program with Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru and the Philippines is part of a broader effort by the administration to boost workforce unionization, in this case by fostering outreach to immigrant communities.
"Partnerships and outreach play a critical role in advancing workers' rights and enforcing the laws that protect people at work," Perez said. "By renewing these five embassy agreements, we will continue to enhance workers' awareness about their rights and promote a better understanding of labor laws and practices in the U.S."
The embassy program does not differentiate between those who are legally able to work in the U.S. and those who are not, according to a post on the Labor Department's website.
"During this week, the department's Wage and Hour Division — along with its Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Bureau of International Labor Affairs, other federal agencies and the consulates of several countries — will celebrate the contributions of all workers, regardless of immigration status, through outreach and education events throughout the country," said David Weil, administrator of the department's Wage and Hour Division.
The department is adopting the theme, "Todos tenemos derechos en el trabajo," which translates to, "We all have workplace rights."
The National Labor Relations Board, a separate federal agency that serves as the main labor law enforcer, has signed similar agreements with the same countries.
Federal immigration law states that businesses must fire any employee who is not legally eligible to work in the U.S. However, the government also interprets laws such as the Occupational Health and Safety Act or the National Labor Relations Act as applying to all workers regardless of their immigration status.
That conflict can create Catch-22 situations for employers since they can face sanctions both for firing workers and for not firing them. It also creates complications for federal labor law enforcers, though it can be hard to pursue complaints against employers if the witness' immigration status makes it hard for them to stay in the country.
Under President Obama, a close ally of organized labor, the administration has been trying to resolve the conflict by making it easier to pursue legal complaints on behalf of immigrant workers. Earlier this year, the labor board said it would help to facilitate visas for immigrant workers needed to testify in immigration law cases.
Organized labor groups such as the AFL-CIO, which once opposed immigration, now favor it. Unions have had considerable success in organizing immigrant communities, helping to bolster ranks that otherwise have been declining for decades as a percentage of the workforce.
The foreign embassies praised the Labor Department program for making enforcement actions easier.
"This renewed partnership will improve the Ecuadorian workers' standard of living, through a better understanding of labor laws and their rights in the U.S. The embassy and the department will cooperate to provide outreach and training, as well as assist with enforcement efforts as needed," said Ecuadorian Ambassador Francisco Borja Cevallos.