Answering the Call of Migrant Workers

Earlier this year, I met Daria Hernandez, a seasonal H-2B worker from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, who has been coming to the U.S. for the past 15 years to clean crabs in Maryland.

When she first arrived, she didn’t speak English, didn’t know anyone, wasn’t provided even basic personal protective equipment and didn’t know about her rights as a worker. Daria was able to learn about her rights from the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM), which gave her confidence to share that knowledge with other workers as a leader and advocate.

Speaking to representatives from U.S. government agencies, foreign embassies, community-based organizations, and labor rights advocates at the U.S. Department of Labor to kick off the annual Labor Rights Week on Aug. 28, Daria told us, “All migrant workers want to raise their voice. But it is very hard… we are scared that we will be fired, or that we won’t be hired back next season. For us, to raise our voices is to risk our jobs and the well-being of our families.”

We recognize that far too often migrant workers aren’t aware of their rights and face language barriers and race and gender-based discrimination while performing essential work in our country. They don’t know where to turn when they have a problem.

While by law all workers in the U.S. are protected from retaliation, migrant workers are particularly vulnerable and, with limited experience in the country and varying levels of English, may not know about these protections.

We observe International Migrants Day on Dec. 18 — a day dedicated to recognizing the contributions of migrant workers and advocating for their rights. On this day, we remember Daria’s call to action:

“Every one of you has in your hands the power to do something to better the lives of migrant workers like me. We are hoping that you choose to do so.”

One way we chose to do so this year was through the launch of MigrantWorker.gov, a worker-centered website, in English and Spanish, that answers common questions and consolidates important resources and information from across the U.S. government about migrant worker rights throughout the labor migration journey — from recruitment, to working in the U.S., to a safe return home. 

The department has partnered with Mexico’s Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare to strengthen shared mechanisms to prevent, report and investigate violations of migrant workers’ rights; to hold employers and their agents accountable; and connect workers who are harmed or exploited to assistance and care in the United States and Mexico.

These commitments are captured in a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding on Labor Mobility signed in January 2023. Under the MoU, the two agencies collaborate through a binational U.S.-Mexico Return of Migrant Wages pilot program to find H-2A workers who have returned to Mexico but are still owed back wages from their time working in the United States.

We have a greater impact on the lives of migrant workers when we work together with other agencies, advocacy groups and governments, and when migrant workers are empowered to exercise their rights.

We are committed to responding to Daria’s call to action in honor of the contributions of migrant workers today and every day. We hope you will be too and share these resources widely. As Daria said, each of us plays a part.

This blog originally appeared at the Department of Labor website’s blog section on December 14, 2023.

About the Author: Thea Mei Lee is the deputy undersecretary for international affairs. Follow the Bureau of International Labor Affairs on X/Twitter at @ILAB_DOL and on LinkedIn.

Visit Workplace Fairness to learn more about migrant workers’ rights against discrimination.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.