By Thomas Whitney
October 29 marked 100 years since the United States hosted the first International Labor Conference (ILC), the annual high-level meeting of the International Labor Organization (ILO) held in Washington. The Treaty of Versailles, which brought an end to World War I in 1919, also established the ILO—along with the League of Nations—as an international organization with a tripartite governance structure that incorporates non-governmental entities as voting members. Each member state of the ILO is represented not only by its government but also by workers and employers from that state. The United States delegation includes the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and the United States Council for International Business. The work of the ILO has continued steadily, extending the global reach of basic labor standards and expanding international protections for workers. In 1969, the ILO received the Nobel Peace Prize for its standards—setting work and technical assistance to enable broad-based development.
While the United States served on the 1919 commission to set up the ILO and hosted the first ILC, they did not formally join the organization until 1934. Today, the United States is a permanent member of the ILO’s governing body and is the largest donor to the ILO, both in terms of assessed contributions as well as support to extra-budgetary technical cooperation projects. In 1998, the United States joined the Declaration on the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, which affirmed the core workers’ rights of freedom of association, collective bargaining, freedom from forced labor and child labor, and non-discrimination. These fundamental principles allowed for a common understanding of labor laws and standards that has become essential to negotiating U.S. trade agreements.
The same officials who led the U.S. push to join the ILO in 1934 also introduced the country’s first labor diplomacy program. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins and Isadore Lubin, a labor economist who served as Perkins’ commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, recognized the growing role of labor unions and the need for a specialist core within the Foreign Service to focus on labor organizations and labor policy during World War II. The first labor officers were posted to Chile and Argentina in 1943, and the Economic Bureau at the Department of State became home to the newly created Office of International Labor and Health.
When WWII ended and the Cold War emerged, labor attachés and labor officers proliferated amid concerns about the influence of communist elements within the labor movements in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere. At its peak in the mid-1960s, there were as many as 90 labor officers serving in American embassies and consulates. The office of the Special Assistant to the Secretary and Coordinator for International Labor Affairs (S/IL) was created in 1962 to oversee the growing program within the office of the Secretary. In the Department’s 1994 reorganization, S/IL became the Office of International Labor Affairs within the new Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL), at times headed by a Special Representative for International Labor Affairs.
Labor diplomacy has been most successful when there has been a synergy between the U.S. labor movement and broader foreign policy aims. In the late-1940s, international outreach from the AFL and CIO—two separate federations at the time—helped undermine efforts by communist unions to hamper the delivery of Marshall Plan assistance—an American initiative passed to aid Western Europe. In 1949, the two U.S. federations formed the International Federation of Free Trade Unions, which provided a network of support to independent unions amid the ideological competition for workers. After their merger, the AFL-CIO set up training institutes for unions in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Support from the Reagan Administration, the AFL-CIO and the ILO were each intrinsic to the success of Poland’s Solidarity Movement in the 1980s. Today, the AFL-CIO-affiliated Solidarity Center, a core grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, extends this work supporting strong, democratic unions that represent workers’ interests in more than 60 countries.
Once staffed primarily with attachés seconded from U.S. universities and unions, the labor diplomacy program was fully professionalized in the 1970s within the Foreign Service and included an eight-week training program. While there is no longer a specialized track for promoting labor officers into the Senior Foreign Service and today’s training program is just one week, many Foreign Service officers who serve as labor officers in one country seek out similar opportunities elsewhere. Through consultative staffing with the regional bureaus, DRL works to place those with relevant experience into key labor roles. The portfolio straddles political and economic issues and necessitates an ability to engage with non-governmental actors outside the political elite. A labor officer not only needs a detailed understanding of bilateral trade minutiae for meetings with Labor or Trade Ministry officials but also must be comfortable developing contacts in boardrooms, on factory floors and even in the fields.
Labor diplomacy is also a natural fit with other issues handled by the DRL bureau, especially freedom of association—a key human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In many countries where civil society faces pressure, labor unions are the canary in the coal mine, revealing worrying government tactics. Government control over labor unions continues to be a feature of most authoritarian regimes.
Labor diplomacy is also an area where U.S. foreign policy is clear and bipartisan. Extending labor rights abroad is essential for broad-based development and levels the playing field for American workers exposed to international trade. For this reason, the labor chapters of America’s free-trade agreements (FTAs) have become among the most scrutinized sections of the pacts—and have continuously strengthened in subsequent agreements. FTA labor negotiations have prompted U.S. trading partners to undergo wholesale reforms. In line with its commitments under the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, Mexico enacted a groundbreaking labor law, May 1, that allows for independent union and collective bargaining for the first time. The United States also requires that developing countries receiving unilateral trade benefits comply with core labor rights and standards. In 2018, for example, Mauritania lost its eligibility for these benefits due, among other things, to the government’s failure to eradicate forced labor.
At the centenary International Labor Conference held at the ILO’s Geneva headquarters in May, the United States joined the tripartite representatives from other member states in adopting a Convention on Violence and Harassment in the World of Work. The Convention provided impetus and a guide for countries to pass and implement national legislation as well as a framework for international action to combat this international epidemic. It is also a tool for labor officers at embassies around the world to remind their counterparts that workplace violence and harassment is internationally disavowed and will not be tolerated. It is an ambitious goal, but raising the labor standards has always been ambitious.
Thomas Whitney is deputy director in the Office of International Labor Affairs, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
A labor officer’s experience
Mirna Torres, Embassy Abuja
“I have served as a labor officer on tours in the Dominican Republic, Jordan, Mexico and Nigeria. One of my proudest accomplishments as a labor officer was in 2013 when I worked with representatives from the Philippine, Sri Lankan and Indonesian embassies in Jordan to draw attention to the plight of domestic workers, primarily women, from those countries. These workers wanted to repatriate but were unable to do so because they had children born out of wedlock. These single mothers were unable to register their child’s birth without a special Jordanian court ruling that was often hard to obtain. Consequently, the children were unable to obtain travel documents. The fear of losing their children kept many of these mothers from delivering in hospitals and compelled some of them to give false names at the time of delivery. My fellow diplomats and I successfully advocated with the government of Jordan to establish guidelines to facilitate the prompt issuance of birth registration documents for the children of any foreign domestic worker seeking repatriation. At one of my meetings with the Consul General of the Embassy of the Philippines in Jordan, he asked me why the U.S. cared about his compatriots. I was proud to answer, ‘Because advancing human rights worldwide is a priority for my government.’”
Daniel Thompson, Embassy San Salvador
“After identifying information gaps and potential bias in third-party labor reports, I thought it would be prudent to ask sugarcane producers if I could harvest sugarcane alongside laborers for reporting purposes. The experiential reporting approach aimed to pierce the veil of public relations treatment embassy representatives expect to receive in the field, hear directly from laborers themselves and gain a better appreciation of the physical demands of the work. “While many third-party sugarcane labor reports focus on the stresses of high temperatures and the risk of chronic kidney disease, our experiential reporting revealed underreported factors such as extremely high levels of particulate matter in the air, partial compliance with safety regulations, tension between quota demands and the need for water breaks, and the how teenage pregnancy drives many young men and women into the fields to provide for their children. While third party reporting is very helpful in triangulating the truth, firsthand experience and fact-checking our sources has made our reporting more accurate and nuanced. In a country like El Salvador, with its long-standing labor challenges, narratives become widely accepted mantras over time. However, knowing the ground truth not only helps us build credibility and respect with our stakeholders, it can help make our U.S. policy responses to issues more effective and efficient.”