On December 10th, the people of Argentina inaugurated Cristina Fernández de Kirchner for her second term as their president. Cristina is Argentina's first elected female president, and the second female president ever to serve. She is very proud of her ties to Argentina's working people and to her country's labor movement--something we share in common and that I greatly admire.
Needless to say, Cristina is an inspiration to me and to women everywhere.
For my entire career in public service, supporting women--and policies and programs that support them--has been an important priority of mine, in and outside of the U.S. So when President Obama asked me to lead the U.S. Delegation to Argentina's presidential inauguration ceremony, I jumped at the chance.
It was, of course, a great honor to be a part of President Fernández de Kirchner's big day, and to attend on President Obama's behalf. But to be honest, the significance of this trip wasn't just personal.
The U.S. Department of Labor has an important relationship with Argentina. Last year we signed a letter of understanding with Argentina's Labor Ministry to promote collaboration on labor matters, ensure equitable economic growth, raise living standards and support youth employment programs and the protection of labor rights.
We're also doing a lot to support women and girls in Argentina and across the globe. For many girls, options for the future are grim because today they are deprived of schooling. Far too many are exploited in the worst forms of child labor and denied access to education, making it more likely that they end up living in poverty.
The Department of Labor funds projects that create access to quality education, and help improve families' livelihoods so that they can send their children to school, rather than put them to work. Some of our initiatives even encourage school attendance through scholarships or in-school nutrition programs.
Additionally, for nearly 20 years, we've been collecting international data on the large number of children who labor as domestics. More girls under 16 are in domestic service than in any other category of child labor. Some of our projects are specifically designed to help girls who have toiled as domestic servants--an effort that has encouraged other countries to do the same.
I chose to keep a diary of my brief Argentine adventure (I would only be in the country for about 36 hours), because I wanted to remember all the special details of the trip -- not just for myself, but for other women, and for all those across America who live both the challenges and benefits that come with the dynamic relationship between the U.S. and Argentina.
Friday December 9, 2011
As soon as the plane lands in Buenos Aires, I'm on my way to the U.S. Embassy for a lunch meeting with Labor Minister, Carlos Tomada. He has my job in Argentina. Carlos was appointed by former Argentine President, Nestor Kirchner and reappointed by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. As a lawyer, lecturer and trade unionist he brings a wealth of employment and labor rights experience to his post.
Carlos and I actually met in Buenos Aires back in 2009 at the Inter-American Conference of Ministers of Labor--an organization he served as President for over the last two years. I was also pleased to host him at the first ever G20 Labor and Employment Ministers Meeting at DOL last year. One of the best parts of my work is being able to meet and learn from my peers from across the globe, so I was thrilled to have some time with him.
Even in the midst of the U.S. economic downturn, Argentina's jobless rate has declined steadily amid booming economic growth. An estimated 4.9 million jobs were created in the last seven years and the country has made incredible progress in expanding its employment and training programs.
We had a lot to talk about.
We covered a range of topics including: the global economic downturn and the importance of keeping labor issues front-and-center in international discussions; the need for job creation and social welfare programs to address immediate concerns of unemployment; gender-based discrimination in the workplace; and youth employment and training.
Carlos mentioned that this month he is launching a new strategic plan that will focus on quality employment, including initiatives designed to improve work/life balance and strengthened social dialogue in Argentina's main economic sectors. His new plan will also focus heavily on education and job training for youth--an issue Carlos and I are both very passionate about.
Since our very first meeting, youth issues have been a regular part of our dialogue. This time, I asked a lot about the program he launched in 2008 (Argentina's Youth Employment Program) that focuses on youth ages 18-24 who have not completed school. The program not only provides training, but also raises students' awareness about their rights on the job. Carlos told me that more than 400,000 Argentine youth had been served by the program. He was very proud.
On the same note, we both agreed that science and technology were both subject areas that both governments should undertake and highlight on behalf of youth. Carlos suggested developing an interactive bi-national display reflecting U.S./Argentine space exploration cooperation at "Technopolis" an Argentine science and technology exposition and a major government initiative that will re-open in July.
My next stop: coffee with Argentine Union Leaders. They represented metal workers, construction workers, taxi drivers and government employees. Argentina has one of the most politically active and economically powerful unionized labor forces in the hemisphere, so I was very excited to hear what they had to say about issues working people in Argentina face.
It was a great meeting. They had a lot of questions for me about the role labor unions currently play in the American economy and about how they interact with the U.S. government. I highlighted the importance of unions to working people, the middle class and to our economic recovery as a nation.
I also explained the current difficulties facing the labor union movement here at home--the efforts on behalf of industry and government to curb labor movement gains and limit collective bargaining. I mentioned that union workers, in states like Wisconsin and Ohio, have taken bold action to fight back against efforts to strip them of their right to a voice at work.
I was pleased to see that the group was enthusiastic to engage with me on this issue. They spoke mainly to their support for their government's labor policies. The group also mentioned that, while there may have been some bumps in the road, organized labor had made important gains since 2003 and that collaboration between the government and labor unions played an important role in Argentina's economic recovery.
Saturday, December 10, 2011
I woke up excited for the big day. From my room I could hear the hustle and bustle in the hallways of the embassy as preparations began for Cristina's inauguration ceremony that would take place in a few hours.
After a quick breakfast, and a brief staff check-in, we huddled into the car and made our way to the Argentine National Congress Building where the ceremony was held. The building was packed and, oddly similar to the U.S. Capitol, complete with beautiful moldings and a dome at the top.
I was escorted to private room for a quick meeting with some of Argentina's government officials and then to my seat in the main room of the building.
The ceremony was beautiful. Cristina wore black, in a tribute to her late husband and predecessor, Néstor, who died of a heart attack in October 2010. Against the back drop of Argentine flag, and with scores of press and supporters in the balcony above her, she renewed her oath for the second time.
In an impassioned speech, she touted a "new Argentina," where the interest of foreign banks and big corporations were taking a back seat to the interests of Argentine citizens and consumers, who have enjoyed an economy growing about 9 percent this year. Perhaps the most touching part of her speech was when she spoke about her late husband, vowing to discharge her presidential duties "as God, country and he demand."