Advancing Decent Work and Labor Rights Globally

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This transcript is from a CSIS event hosted on February 21, 2024. Watch the full video here.

Michelle Strucke: Good afternoon, everyone. And welcome to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. I’m delighted to be here today. My name is Michelle Strucke. I’m the Director of the CSIS Human Rights Initiative and the Director of the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda. It is our pleasure to have you hear today both in person and online. And we expect a great conversation, and hope that you can participate as well in the Q&A session.

We know that the issue of labor is critical to all stakeholders – be they government, business, or labor unions. The way that a country treats its workers is often indicative of its broader economic and social health. As we approach the third summit for democracy, which will be hosted by South Korea, it is worth reflecting on the progress that has been made over the last four years in terms of promoting respect for labor rights both here in the U.S. and abroad. I want to thank the International Labor Organization for their generous support for today’s event, and share that they have been a leader through their Global Coalition for Social Justice, which aims to intensify collective efforts to address social justice deficits and advance the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Decent Work Agenda.

The U.S. government has also made significant progress on labor rights, via several new and innovative policies. President Biden’s Global Labor Strategy outlines a whole of government approach to advancing worker empowerment, and the Department of Labor’s M-POWER Initiative is working with global partners to elevate the role of trade unions and organized workers. And finally, we have the Biden-Lula Partnership for Workers’ Rights, which we will hear more about from our distinguished panelists from – including Brazil’s ambassador, who is with us here today.

Before we turn to our panelists, it is my great pleasure to introduce Mr. Gilbert Houngbo, the Director-General of the International Labor Organization, and the former Prime Minister of Togo. Mr. Houngbo has spent much of his life working to improve the prospects of the world’s most vulnerable people, using his extensive experience in policy issues, economic development, diplomacy, and financial accountability. In his current role as the Director-General of the ILO, he is focused on promoting greater social justice, fighting inequalities and discrimination in the world of work, and achieving better working conditions both through national action and by building more effective multilateral coordination and leadership.

And to bring this about, he places special emphasis on universal social protection, decent work in global supply chains and in the platform economy, the fight against child and forced labor, protecting the rights of migrant workers, promoting social dialogue and freedom of association, ensuring just transitions, and attaining gender equality. He’s held many notable positions throughout his career, notably as Prime Minister of Togo from 2008 to 2012. And he’s also served as Assistant Secretary General and Regional Director for Africa at the U.N. Development Program, Deputy Director-General for Field Operations and Partnerships in the ILO International Labor Office, and Chair of the Board of the Natural Resource Governance Institute.

So now I will welcome to the stage Director-General Houngbo for his opening remarks, and after that introduce our distinguished panel. Thank you, again, for joining us today. (Applause.)

Gilbert F. Houngbo: Good afternoon or good evening to you all. And thank you so much for having us here with Excellency Maria Luiza Ribeiro, the Ambassador of Brazil, Undersecretary Thea Lee, Cathy Feingold, the Director of International Department at AFL-CIO, and Melissa Kopolow, the Vice-Chair of the Corporate Responsibility and Labor Affair Committee in the U.S. Council for International Business.

Dear colleagues, dear guests, let me start by recognizing that in recent years we have witnessed, globally at least, good news. Normally the recovery in terms of economic growth, job indicators are back. A lot of – most of the job indicators are back to the pre-COVID level. And the global job gap now is below as well it’s level that it was in the last quarter of 2019.

That being said, still ahead of us lie rather daunting systemic and pervasive challenges – the inability of the current economic model to produce – to produce sufficient decent jobs, the state of labor rights, where they exist, the inadequate social protection, the lack of sustained social dialogue, and the – obviously, the effect of the climate change and the demographic shift that we are witnessing. All of which are contributing to escalating inequalities globally, I’m afraid. And on top of all of this, we are now witnessing the great excitement, but also the immense challenges, that come from – with the development of Gen AI, as we call it.

I hope you will agree with me that returning to a business-as-usual after COVID, such an approach will be a siren call to further crisis that will betray the core aspiration of social, economic, and environmental sustainability. We do require an alternative path, one that firmly places decent work and social justice at its helm. This is not merely a contemporary catchphrase. It is a principle of fair treatment, a principle of equal opportunities, a principle of decent working condition embedded in the very constitution of ILO at the very beginning, in 1919. It declares that universal is important for us to keep repeating this – that universal and lasting peace rests on the foundation of social justice.

Today, more than ever, as the world complexity intensifies, there is a pressing need to reassess development strategies and reorient our institutions to prioritize human needs, the rights, and the primacy of decent work. The fight for decent work and labor rights is one that demands our urgent attention as many parts of the world continue to grapple with significant labor market challenges marked by high informality, low productivity, insufficient job growth, and inadequate system to protect workers rights. Globally, young people still facing the challenge of simply finding a job. And unemployment is just the tip of the iceberg.

Unemployment figures are often masked by the prevalence of insecure and, quite frankly, unproductive employment. Even worse, we are witnessing an uptick in forced labor, now estimated to be around 27.6 million people. And this is not merely a statistic. It’s a human catastrophe, with each number representing individuals deprived of their dignity, deprived of their freedom. And it is important to note that this challenge is not limited to developing nations. It is a global issue. And we have not been able to eradicate the scourge of child labor as well, which stands at 160 million children trapped in their conditions of exploitation.

Hundreds of million people face as well the unfortunate reality of workplace discrimination, which is amplifying disparities and eroding fundamental rights. Discrimination against women remain particularly profound, both in gaining entry to labor market and once employed, of course, we know they earn on average 20 percent less than their male counterparts. We also see fundamental freedoms being tested daily as attacks on workers’ rights proliferate, making the effective implementation of the ILO’s fundamental principle and rights at work even more challenging.

Just an example – in Myanmar, since the military coup in 2021, trade unions have faced large scale and lethal violence, harassment, intimidation, and arbitrary arrest and detentions – as has been strongly condemned by ILO GB, our governing – our board, our governing body, we call it. In countries like Guatemala or Venezuela, we are working alongside trade unions, employers, and government officials to strengthen the application of labor laws, particularly those enabling nondiscrimination, and ensuring the right to collective bargaining and protecting union leaders from violence and intimidation.

We see growing discontentment around the world, from those risking everything in their journey to find work and create a better life to squeezed middle classes feeling unheard. And this is driving demand for leaders to agree on decisive affirmative action toward genuine social justice. At stake is a balanced approach to economic, social, and environmental dimension of our sustainable development, aiming to drastically minimize inequalities that keep growing over the past 40 years and fighting poverty. For this to happen, a much greater emphasis needs to be placed on the social pillar out of those three. Gravitating around this is the concept of tripartism – bringing together the government, the employers, and the workers – to address the challenges through dialogue, social dialogue, and focusing on our normative – ILO normative mandate.

The vision of establishing a new era of decent work and social justice within our lifetimes is not something that is unattainable dream, honestly speaking. It is both feasible, and I will be pretentious by saying that it’s mandatory, if we really want peace not only for our generation but for the generation to comes. The means, the policies, instruments – they do exist. What is required is a unified – a unified front to translate these resources into reality. The universal application of international labor standard should provide the benchmark for achieving decent work. This transformative journey demands leadership willing to confront decent work challenges at the core. So it does necessitate conscious, concerted action toward greater equality.

I was honored to take part of the launch last September in the Biden-Lula Initiative on Workers’ Rights, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. And this is the type of bold, multilateral leadership required to move the decent work needle forward. At the same time, we are also in ILO very much – and I’m very much encouraged by the U.S. presidential memorandum on advancing workers empowerment rights and high labor standard globally. And this reflects a comprehensive government commitment to promote consistency and coherence in its operations to ensure workers are protected, not only nationally but globally. We really – in ILO, we are looking forward to hearing the next steps so that we can really work together with the U.S. administration in implementing this new – this vision and this initiative.

Finally, let me recognize the commitment of the U.S. and the Brazilian government, as well as the U.S. Council for International Business, for numerous global and national trade unions that have formally joined the Coalition for Social Justice that we have established. The next month will be key in identifying, finalizing, fine-tuning the thematics, where we’re going to focus our impetus, our additional work, so that we are not spreading our – we are rather focusing on very specific, agreed thematic. So I would like, in closing, by calling on all government and institutions to continue helping us in joining this coalition, so that together we can put our effort for a better world. Thank you. (Applause.)

Ms. Strucke: Thank you so much. What inspiring and powerful remarks on the state of labor and workers’ rights in the world today. And we really appreciate those comments. So I’ll turn now to our panel. I’m absolutely humbled and honored to introduce our panelists here. I’ll start on the end.

So we have with us Melissa Kopolow, who is both Vice President of Sustainability at the Albright Stonebridge Group and Vice-Chair of the USCIB Working Group on Corporate Responsibility and Labor Affairs. And in her prior role as Global Director of Policy at Anheuser Busch, she developed global multilateral engagement strategies and advanced programs in support of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. And before that, had a long and distinguished career at the State Department, and also worked in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. So thank you so much for being here today.

Then I have with us Cathy Feingold, who is the International Director for the AFL-CIO. She is a leading advocate on global workers’ rights issues, with more than 20 years of experience in trade and global economic policy, and worker, human, and women’s rights issues. And in 2018, she was elected Deputy President of the International Trade Union Confederation, an organization representing 200 million unionized workers worldwide. And in 2002, Secretary Blinken appointed her to his foreign policy – sorry – Foreign Affairs Policy Board.

Next, we have with us Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor Thea Lee. She has been advocating for workers’ rights both domestically and internationally for over 30 years, most recently having served as president of the Economic Policy Institute from 2018 to 2021. And prior to that, Deputy Undersecretary Lee spent 20 years at the AFL-CIO, where she served as Deputy Chief of Staff, Policy Director, and Chief International Economist.

And then finally, I have Ambassador of Brazil to the U.S., Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti. During her career, she has held numerous positions in the areas of trade promotion, multilateral organizations, and bilateral policy. And some of her recent roles include serving as Permanent Representative of Brazil to the United Nations, Ambassador of Brazil to Germany, and Chief of Staff to the U.N. Secretary General.

Please, a round of applause for our panelists before we start this discussion. (Applause.) Thank you so much.

So I’ll start with a question I’m going to direct to all of you, so please feel free to jump in. There’s a widespread deficit in decent work that has profound social and economic implications, as we’ve heard already discussed today. So in your view, what is the most important issue that would address this that we could discuss today, the number one issue? So perhaps I’ll start with you, Deputy Undersecretary Lee.

The Honorable Thea Lee: Thank you so much. It’s a great pleasure to be here, Michelle. And it’s always a pleasure to follow Director-General Houngbo, and to hear his remarks.

So in terms of the decent work deficit, of course, when we talk about decent work deficit we’re talking about not just the number of jobs but the quality of jobs. But also, and I think the director-general mentioned it, empowerment. And so for that, I mean, the key really is freedom of association and collective bargaining. It won’t come as a big surprise to you, given that I have a long history in the labor movement, but I actually think that this is a moment in history when we have the opportunity to really leverage economic and political power to make changes. Because when workers don’t have the right to organize a union, an independent, democratic union, and bargain for their fair share the wealth that they create – you know, autocratic governments sometimes can’t tolerate democratic unions.

So unions are central to democracy. They are central to peace, as the director-general said. They’re essential to shared prosperity. But I think we’re at a moment where we can use our trade tools, the market access of the United States. We have, as I think a lot of people know, spent a long time, many decades, trying to incorporate stronger labor rights provisions into our trade agreements. But we also have really powerful tools with respect to forced labor, that the United States has an import ban on goods made in whole or in part with forced labor. These tools are essential to motivate the power players in the global economy, both the corporations and the governments that have the power, that don’t want to share that power.

But if their access to markets, not just in the United States, but maybe of Canada, the European Union, Australia, the United Kingdom. And this is the conversation that we’re having right now globally. And that’s why the Global Coalition for Social Justice that the director-general talked about, our Multilateral Partnership for Organizing Worker Empowerment and Rights, M-POWER, are so important, because what it does is bring together likeminded governments. And, of course, the U.S.-Brazil partnership, where we can bring together likeminded governments and really synergize that power and the – so that we can share the policies that are working to protect and strengthen workers’ rights around the world, but especially freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Ms. Strucke: Thank you so much. So, sure. Thanks.

Ambassador Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti: Yes, well, thank you very much. I’m very pleased to join you and this wonderful panel in this discussion today on an issue that is very important to Brazil and has become central to U.S.-Brazil cooperation, our bilateral agenda. And in fact, Secretary Blinken is in Brazil today. He had a meeting with President Lula this morning. And workers’ rights and decent work was very much part of the conversation. And we have a longstanding cooperation with the ILO, and I’m very grateful to Mr. Houngbo for his support and his contribution to this partnership and to making our cooperation even stronger. And of course we are also very happy with the excellent partnership we have had over the years with CSIS. And I’m very glad to see that workers’ rights is also part of the your ongoing work. We look forward to contribute to that as much as possible.

And regarding your question, I think that from a Brazilian perspective, we believe that addressing this deficit in decent work requires a comprehensive policy approach. I very much agree with your comments. I would add perhaps, in our case, the importance of encouraging formalization. As we know, formal employment offers greater job security, access to social services, and also contributes to improving working conditions in general, and wages. And perhaps we could also mention the importance that has been already emphasized by the director-general of ILO, the importance of encouraging dialogue, collaboration among governments, workers, and employers, as a way of facilitating the development of policies and their implementation.

Ms. Strucke: Thank you so much.

Cathy Feingold: Yeah. I just want to start by saying, well, first of all, thank you for having me here.

And I want to underscore what an amazing moment this is, to be on a panel with business. Thea basically stole my speech – someone from government – (laughter) – that are all nodding in agreement about unions and decent work and social justice. If we had been at CSIS a few years back, this may not have been the conversation. So I want to underscore what a moment we’re in, and that we need to seize this moment, like the director-general just encouraged us all to do.

You cannot have social justice without decent work. And that’s why I’m really proud to announce that today we are formally, just this morning, joined the ILO Social Justice Coalition. I believe, director-general, that we are the first country – first country? To be business, labor, and the government to sign on – or, one of the first countries. Which I think also speaks to this moment the United States when many people think there isn’t a space in this country for social dialogue. But I think what we’re seeing here is there is interest, there is excitement. And I want to connect the dots between the social justice framework at the International Labor Organization and the other frameworks that we just heard about, right?

Because the idea of the Social Justice Coalition is to connect the dots between what we’re doing here in the United States, the president’s directive – which if people don’t know what that is, it basically tells every U.S. agency to look at global labor issues. From the Department of Energy to the Department of Labor – that one’s easy – to Commerce. Agencies that haven’t had to think about this before. Our missions around the world, right, are now having to ask different questions. We have a new narrative. And I think this Social Justice Coalition helps us ensure that this is not only happening in the United States, but it’s going to be happening around the world. There are going to be seats at the table for unions.

And I want to underscore what Thea said. There can be no justice without freedom of association, without the right to strike, without collective action by workers. And the ILO in 1919 anchored itself in this pillar of social justice and fundamental rights. And so what we’re doing today, which I think this exciting, is reclaiming that moment. Building frameworks that will last, you know, for years to come, that really embed worker rights as the key to justice and equality. And I just want to name a few other things that are linked to having decent work. And we don’t really talk about decent work in the United States as a frame. So I want to make sure people understand, it doesn’t mean any old job.

It means a job that has rights and social protections, that you can form a union without a corporation running an anti-union campaign against you, right? That you can freely decide what kind of democratic practices you want in your workplaces. It means that there are good wages, that there are social protection floors that allow for just transition to the clean energy economy and to new technologies like artificial intelligence. We need to build that floor under working people in this country and around the world. It means that migrant workers, informal economy workers are recognized under labor protections. In the U.S., we have too many people who are excluded from basic labor protections. So we need labor law reforms around the world that will ensure there, indeed, is a floor of social justice.

So it’s an exciting moment. Decent work is at the heart of it. Every single person wants to wake up, know they’ll go to work, know, they’ll be able to exercise their rights, have health care, take care of their families, and have a robust labor law system that can protect them when their rights are violated. And so I do hope – I’m going to join, you know, the DG’s call. I’m going to, you know, hope that here in the United States, business, labor, and the government can come together to come up with a few concrete ideas in how we can ground the Social Justice Coalition in our context, and not just keep it up here as an aspiration but as something we deliver to working people in this country. Thank you.

Ms. Strucke: Thank you so much. And thank you for underscoring the importance of having everyone at the table. I think that is such an important point for everyone to take home, is none of this can happen without people working together and representing the very important and often powerful interests that are seated here on this panel. So thank you so much. Melissa, love to hear your thoughts.

Melissa Kopolow: Yeah. Thank you for having me today. And if I can underscore a different moment, it is not lost on me that we are a panel of all women. (Laughter.) It is pretty impressive. (Applause.) And I’d like to thank CSIS for including me, so – and to my panelists. I’m very humbled to be here.

I’m representing the U.S. Council for International Business today. And for those of you who don’t know what we are, we were formed in 1945. We represent multinational companies, SMEs. We represent law firms. We represent consultancies and business sectors. So we’re very vast. So within that, you can appreciate that I got to get my points right. Can’t be quite as laissez faire as I might normally so, you know, excuse me if I get a little formal on you.

But USCIB, we are the representative to the ILO for the U.S. business. And it’s a very important aspect of being here today. USCIB is engaged in developing and supporting international standards. And the U.S. employer community supports advancing decent work globally, it’s a paramount, and improving labor conditions. And especially in countries that have challenging situations in relationship to human rights. Advancing labor rights globally has positive impact for business certainty. Investment and market expansions are easier. And there are lower risks for companies when they operate in markets free of labor challenges. In other words, like we’ve been saying, when all stakeholders are involved – business, workers, and governments – we all then benefit from economies that are free of labor challenges.

Specific to your question, Michelle, about what can we talk about today, for us the most important action that could address these deep-rooted labor and human rights challenges is to build capacity of national governments around the world to create enabling environments for sustainable enterprise and to promote human rights within their countries. Sustainable enterprises are a principal source of growth, wealth creation, employment, and decent work – the promotion of which is a major tool for achieving decent work, sustainable development, and innovation that improves standards of living and social conditions over time.

An enabling environment for sustainable enterprise requires strong governance and rule of law, which are critical to minimize informality and address root causes of many labor and human rights challenges. This is where we see both the Global Labor Strategy and the ILO’s Global Coalition for Social Justice that can deliver real value and support constituents around the world.

Ms. Strucke: Thank you so much. That’s really – thank you so much for these really important points. I think now I’ll go and I’ll address each of you with a targeted question. We’ve raised a lot of important points for discussion. I’ll start with Deputy Undersecretary Lee. Specifically, the Biden Global Labor Strategy outlined this whole-of-government approach to advancing worker empowerment, unions, internationally recognized workers’ rights. And obviously it’s carried out by all executive branch agencies operating overseas, as Cathy emphasized. So I’d love to hear from your perspective, what is new and different about this strategy?

 Hon. Lee: Thank you for that question, Michelle. And the Global Labor Strategy – it’s got a long name, the Presidential Memorandum on Advancing Worker Empowerment, Rights, and High Labor Standards Globally. But we call it the Global Labor Strategy, for obvious reasons. And I was happy to hear both Cathy and Director-General Houngbo talk about it. I can’t tell you how exciting this is.

This is the first time in the history of the world that a leader of a country has basically given this directive to every single Cabinet secretary, every single agency in the U.S. government that does anything international and said: We want you to elevate worker rights and everything you do. We want workers at the table. He sent out a cable – the Secretary of State, he. The Secretary of State sent out a cable to every U.S. embassy around the world instructing them to make sure that worker rights is integrated into everything that they do. When there’s a high-level visitor, trade unionists and worker advocates should be at the table.

This is amazing. This is a dream come true. And it is something that no other country has actually done. And when I was in Brazil last year, President Lula apparently told the Labor Ministry that he was very jealous of the Global Labor Strategy. (Laughter.) So we are hoping that the Global Labor Strategy can be a model because actually one thing that we find when we – when I travel around the world, is that there are a lot of countries where the labor ministry never talks to the foreign affairs ministry or to the trade minister or the customs and border folks. And here in the United States, we’re trying to break down all those silos. And we – and I think we’re doing it very effectively.

So one of the things, for example, will be trainings, so that the ILAB, my little agency, the International Labor Affairs Bureau, has made itself available to provide trainings on workers’ rights to other elements of the U.S. government that need it – whether it’s foreign service folks from the Commerce Department, or certainly from the State Department, but also Coastal Guard, that when they board a boat to look for illegal catch they might also look and ask how much are the workers getting paid, how long have they been on board the boat, how many hours do they work? And looking for signs of forced labor – forced labor indicators. So those are all the kinds of things.

And we’ve just – we’re really excited, we have a new handbook on decent work in fishing, and especially detecting forced labor in fishing, that the ILO and DOL put out just last month. So we hope that that kind of thing is a very useful resource. So the training, the convening, the messaging, the – and already, since this has been in place – which is just since last December – we are getting requests from other agencies. They’re going to be visiting country X, and they want to make sure they’re meeting with labor leaders. And so between our labor attachés and the labor officers at the State Department, and the Solidarity Center, and our colleagues in the AFL-CIO. So I feel like this is really an important step towards bringing a coherent international labor rights policy to the U.S. government, and hopefully to many other governments as well.

Ms. Strucke: Thank you so much. I wanted to ask Ambassador Viotti, you know, we’ve talked a little bit about this bold initiative, you know, that the U.S. is working on with Brazil. So I was curious, what are some of the concrete actions Brazil is taking to implement it? And how is the U.S. government working with you, implementing the Global Labor Strategy, but how are they working with you to support what you’re doing?

Ambassador Viotti: Oh, very well. (Laughs.) We just heard that – we had the pleasure of welcoming Undersecretary Lee in Brazil last year. I also had the privilege of attending the launch of this initiative in September. And I was very impressed to see the degree of enthusiasm that it generated here in the U.S. but, of course, very much so in Brazil. And I think that following the meeting in Brazil – in the meeting in Brazil I think we discussed mainly the issues we are going to focus on. And they have to do with a collaborative approach related to the platform economy, efforts to combat child labor and forced labor, addressing inequalities in the world of labor, generating quality employment, and promoting a green economy.

And additionally, we explored opportunities of trilateral work with the ILO. We have already – Brazil has already been cooperating with ILO in a number of projects related to decent work. So this initiative, I think, can expand our cooperation even further. And Brazil also intends to bring this issue to the G-20. Brazil is now chairing the G-20. And we plan to bring this discussion to the G-20 labor ministers, and perhaps propose also a declaration on decent work, and possibly including also the issue of digital platform workers. So we are in the process of discussing this and planning for the G-20 meeting as well.

Ms. Strucke: Well, thank you so much. That’s extremely exciting. And I do hope that this becomes a model that many countries are thinking about mimicking, perhaps, as they consider that declaration.

Cathy, I wanted to ask you – one of the Biden-Lula partnerships commitments is to protect workers as our economy is changing, particularly in the gig economy. So particularly those who are vulnerable, may be classified as independent contractors and can’t unionize and receive protections afforded by workers and other industries. What are the AFL-CIOs recommendations for governments reflecting on this? And kind of how can governments learn from your recommendations for how to address this gap?

Ms. Feingold: Thanks so much for the question. Thanks to Brazil for your leadership on this issue. I had the opportunity to also be in Brazil with my partners in the Brazilian labor movement and members of government. And you also are doing a lot of work on this issue to really redefine around the platform economy. So one of the things I’m really excited about in this partnership, and in the ILO – again, the connections between all of these frameworks – is that next year we’re going to be negotiating a new standard for platform work. Which is just so critical, because here in the United States right now we’re doing this piecemeal, as we do in the United States. Which is, you know, battling this out state by state, to try to figure out how we resolve the fact that so many workers in this country are misclassified, right?

And so the first thing that we need to do, and I think this is – in the – you know, in the U.S., we are very focused on misclassification. Around the world people really focused on informalization, as you were saying. That so many workers already say, it’s not about me being misclassified. I’ve spent my whole life outside of labor law protections. And so really what we’re saying is that all workers, regardless of status, should have the right to exercise their fundamental labor rights, the right to freedom of association, and to bargain collectively. So I think that’s the first pillar. And, again, President Lula, that is something that he speaks about robustly. So we’re excited for Brazil’s leadership.

You know, we know here in the United States that workers are employees, right? We’re fighting this issue of misclassification because businesses do not want to – want to say that platform is different. Workers shouldn’t have what we were just talking about in the first round of questions – decent work, social protection, right? Knowing they have a floor under them, knowing they have rights. Currently, that’s the battle in our country. And so what I think is exciting about both the U.S.-Brazil Initiative and then the conversations that I think will connect out of the G-20, I hope, into the ILO platform discussion, is we need one framework. We don’t need to do this state by state, country by country. This is what the ILO does best.

They bring us together, we do social dialogue, bring business, labor, and governments together, get a framework so that we’re not spending all this time and energy doing – you negotiate something in Brazil, and then here in California we negotiate something different with the same company. We want one framework that’s robust, that recognizes all work. We need to be creative in labor inspection and enforcement. We need to make sure that there is social protection expanded to all of these workers. We have seen some wins in the U.K., for example. The courts have already given employment status to ride hail and delivery workers. And so that’s an advancement legally. We need to continue to build out that robust legal argument.

And there’s some really exciting legislative initiatives, again, throughout the Americas. Brazil is leading on this. In Spain, they have an initiative on the riders – the riders bill, delivery food workers who have protections. So there’s some exciting initiatives that are showing that, indeed, these workers when they organize they can have power and they can, you know, push back against misclassification and informalization. But we need to be doing it at a global level. And that is the power of the ILO. That’s the role they play. It’s about social justice, making sure these workers – regardless if they work for platform companies – they’re workers. And they deserve decent work, the ILO fundamental rights protections.

And I just want to end by saying, you know, this also links to the other issues we’ve raised around precarity, migrant workers, low-income workers. The workers who are working in many of these jobs have for decades in our own country been excluded by labor law, or labor law was intentionally built to exclude migrant workers in agriculture and domestic work. What we are trying to do with this platform work discussion, both in Brazil and at the ILO, is to finally set the record right for working people, right? Make sure no one’s excluded. Doesn’t matter if you’re a migrant worker delivering food to you, or you’re a domestic worker, or you’re a migrant agricultural worker. You have rights. You deserve protections. And that’s the heart of social justice and decent work.

So really excited to connect the Brazil G-20, the U.S.-Brazil Initiative, and then we’ll all head to the ILO to negotiate a very, what I hope, robust standard that will give not only the United States but the world guidance on how to ensure that all working people have protection and justice.

Ms. Strucke: Thank you so much.

I’ll turn to Melissa. The question, moving into, you know, the role of the private sector, which has the ability to play, and has, this tremendous role in pushing for stronger labor rights standards and holding itself accountable through due diligence. But in Europe, we’ve seen now some potential new directive, the EU CSDDD, which might turn this work from a voluntary behavior into a legal mandate in the EU. So I was curious sort of what you thought about that, particularly the – not just the CSDDD, but the idea of how business is thinking about this issue about standards.

Ms. Kupolow: Yeah. Thank you for the question. I think, you know, we all have demonstrated time and time again, advancing labor rights globally – it benefits all stakeholders. It’s not one stakeholder group that benefits more than another. But I think the question really is, how can you do this most effectively? So when it comes to the EU CSDDD and other legislation, I think it’s important to flag that with this increase in sustainability legislation and mandatory human rights due diligence, there’s risks. And in this particular instance, there’s risk that we’ll see an increase in companies leaving markets with challenging human rights situations. And this could lead to divestment and job losses. These are the unintended consequences that could come.

And we’re concerned that some pieces of legislation are really deviating away from the U.N. guiding principles on business and human rights, which very clearly points out that governments have a duty to protect human rights, and business has responsibly to respect human rights. It is very clear in these guiding principles. It’s important that we keep governments’ feet to the fire, focusing on capacity building and eliminating corruption and information. They hold the primary responsibility when it comes to human rights. But legislation like you were talking about, it’s seeking to shift this duty from – to protect – from the government’s to the business. And it’s not likely that’s going to improve human rights situations and host countries. So we need to be very mindful of these long-term consequences that can come with some of this legislation.

What we’re hearing from companies around this legislation, such as the EU CSDDD, is also that it moves companies’ sustainability work from their sustainability teams to their legal departments. And this focus then becomes compliance rather than partnership, rather than engaging locally, rather than really creating initiatives to move the needle. So in order to prevent such unintended consequences of legislation and really to make sure that we’re driving real change on the ground, we need to make sure that we’re tackling that underlying issue and the root causes, and help those local constituents to improve labor rights. Which is, again, why we hope the global coalition and the Global Labor Strategy can catalyze such action. And we stand ready to support it.

Ms. Strucke: Thank you. I really appreciate that perspective. In terms of sort of this idea of, like, the push and pull of creating, you know, strategies and regulations which bind actors a bit more, does anyone else want to weigh in on that? Sure.

Ms. Feingold: Yeah, I think it’s an important point, because at the end of the day it comes down to enforceability. And one of the really big problems we have is we have lots of initiatives that aren’t enforced. We spend a lot of time having dialogues and having, you said, you know, companies put it into their legal departments because it’s seen as, you know, liability and risk, instead of actually just enforcing labor law. You know, a statistic I use a lot in the United States, we spend 12 times amount on migration enforcement than we do on labor enforcement.

And I’m guessing around the world, if you looked at actual labor enforcement, we’re so busy, like, deporting people and violating people’s rights, rather than making sure that poultry plant has the health and safety protections it needs, that those workers, where there are laws, they’re being effectively enforced. Where there’s due diligence for supply chains, it’s actually getting done and not getting tied up in legal departments. I mean, that is the idea. The idea is, it’s getting done.

It gets back to my initial point. You know, if we were here with workers, our responsibility collectively is to say: How can we improve that life of a worker? And so we spend a lot of time negotiating these big, heavy, you know, due diligence tools. It’s up to us to make sure they’re effectively enforced, improving the lives of workers, and ensuring that labor laws and labor standards are effectively enforced. And that’s why you see in our own country, we’re really moving – as Thea was talking about trade policy – that labor tools that we have in these policies are going from voluntary to binding and enforceable.

Ms. Strucke Sure.

 Hon. Lee: I’d love to jump in on this point also, because I think this is really the conundrum. This is the puzzle that we have, which is how do – you how do you get corporations to take responsibility for their entire supply chain? For decades, that has not been the expectation. So, you know, I’ve been doing this work a long time, but back in, you know, the 1990s, Nike would sit with me and say: Well, we can’t possibly be expected to know. We have thousands of subcontractors. We can’t police the labor conditions in all of those. And that’s partly true, but it’s also true that companies have subcontractors so they don’t have to know what’s happening, what the labor conditions are.

And so I think we’re coming back – sort of back to terms that, in the sense that the – and maybe it’s inadvertent – but, you know, the U.S. forced labor import ban I talked about before, in whole or in part, doesn’t give you a pass because you don’t know what’s in your supply chain or because you don’t employ everybody in your supply chain – whether it’s, you know, the kids picking cocoa beans or in the artisanal mines in Democratic Republic of Congo picking up chunks of cobalt and selling them by the roadside. All those things are ending up in our chocolate bars, in our electric vehicle batteries. And we have responsibility. We are compliant.

And so to me, the key really is not so much, like, moving things from the social compliance folks to the legal folks. It’s moving it up into the CEO penthouse where – and I think what motivates the CEO really is the market access. You know, that it’s not saying – not scolding. I don’t think we can expect to change this by making people feel bad. Because if we’ve created global markets where the winner is the biggest abuser of labor rights, then we can’t expect companies to step up and do the right thing. But governments, as you say – and you’re exactly right, Melissa – it is government’s responsibility to enforce labor laws. But they also have to have the resources to do that. And companies need to not always be lobbying to cut taxes and to cut regulations and to cut worker protections.

So, you know, I think we all have responsibility here. But my point, I think – I do have a point – (laughter) – which is that if you start at the top of the global supply chain, the big multinational corporations, that’s where the money is. That’s where the economic power is. That’s where the political power is. If those companies want to, they can, in fact, enforce labor protections throughout their supply chain by saying: I’m not going to buy from farmer Joe who doesn’t pay his workers. I’m not going to buy from, you know, that mine by the side of the road. I’m going to make sure that the workers have their rights, they have decent work, they have the social protections, they had a safe and healthy workplace. They didn’t have to – kids weren’t working overnight on the kill floor of a meatpacking factory.

So, but it will take that, because I think what you can’t do is fix it at the bottom. Like, you can’t say to them, cocoa farmers, don’t hire kids. Because there’s poverty and there’s desperation. But if we paid a decent price for the cocoa, maybe the parents wouldn’t have to bring their kids to the cocoa fields.

Ms. Kopolow: Michelle, if I can just –

Ms. Strucke: Yeah.

Ms. Kopolow: If I could just for one second. I think you’ll be happy to know that in my role as the Vice-Chair of the Corporate Responsibility and Labor Affairs, this is what we’re talking about. How do we do this? There’s a difference, right, between letter of the law and spirit of law, and your responsibility under the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. How do you have that through line, that sight line? And how do you, as a multinational in particular – because you have that power – enforce? So these are the conversations we’re having and that I’m leading. So I look forward to reporting back to you on it. But we hear you and it’s what we’re tackling.

 Hon. Lee: Thank you.

Ms. Strucke: Thank you so much. So I’m going to move to the Q&A portion. I’ve already received a couple of great questions from the audience online, but just to share how it will work just for a few minutes. If you’re watching this at home, you can go to the CSIS homepage and there’s an “ask a question” box. If you submit that, I’ll see your question and I can – I can add it to the queue. Additionally, if you’re here in the room we have microphones. So you can raise your hand. I’ll start with an online question so you have some time to gather yourselves. If you raise your hand, we’ll have a person bring a microphone to you. You can address your question to anyone on the panel, or to the whole panel. We really appreciate you being here. And we’ll just go with a Q&A for a few minutes.

So I’m going to start where we left off, which is there’s a question that someone asked online, which was: How can we encourage companies to stay in countries with human rights issues in order to push to improve working conditions there? What can the private sector do to improve the behavior of their suppliers? And what leverage do they have? So sort of picking up where we left off? (Laughs.)

Ms. Kopolow: All right. I guess I’ll go first. Again, I cannot speak for every U.S. company here. Let me just put that little footnote out there. But I think that companies want to know that there’s a real partner within the government, that there are to begin with laws on the books that they can point to because they need something to enforce, at the end of the day. And that’s where this national capacity is really important, and this tripartite. You know, the ILO is a model for it, and it really works. So how can you incentivize? I think that, at the end of the day, it costs a lot of money to leave market. It’s not the first choice of a corporation to up and leave. You have all kinds of things that come with that, and with the, you know, scope three, and recognition of, you know, due diligence. Corporates can’t just pretend they don’t know who and what they’re leaving behind.

So I think that in order to incentivize and really encourage, it needs to be a carrot and a stick, to know that there’s something on the books that they can point to and to enforce, and to know that they’re going to be backed by the workers in upholding those human rights, which really is what it comes down to, that they have those partners in working for it.

Ms. Strucke: Thank you. Did you want to? Sure.

Hon. Lee: I did. I wanted to jump in on that too and build on that. That I think, you know, one of the things we talk about is remediation. That we always are going to encourage a company to stay and fix the problem. You know, you leave, you’re not going to make the problem any better. You’re going to leave poverty behind you. And there’s also going to be a bad taste in people’s mouths, like they stood up and asked for their rights and then the company closed down and left. But we talk about remediation, but also worker-centered social compliance. And this is, I think, a little bit new. What we’re trying to do is – one model is what we call the enforceable brand agreements, that I know you’re familiar with. That was, for example, in Bangladesh after the Rana Plaza building disaster, where a garment building collapsed with about 1,100 workers killed, tragically.

But trying to build in workers at the seat at the table. If there’s a union, that’s the best. If there isn’t a union, a truly representative set of workers who can be there negotiating on behalf, so that there are economic consequences and there are – there is a worker voice in that process. So the enforceable brand agreement is one way that companies can know they’re not just checking a box. Like, oh, yeah, I fixed that problem. I gave back the passports. I did what I needed to do, and I’m done. And then the problem might just crop back up again, because the only – the really lasting change is going to be if workers, ideally, have a union, but have an organization where they have a voice, and then the company – you know, rather than hiring very expensive people in suits to go and monitor the company, they could actually have a union on the factory floor. That’s the cheapest and the best social compliance.

Ms. Feingold: I mean, absolutely. And I think that, you know, for many years on the issues – I think Thea touched on the complication of tax. There’s, you know, U.S. Chambers of Commerce around the world that often protest against robust labor laws in countries. And so we can’t have it either way, right? We have to have a commitment to supporting and upholding countries that are trying to strengthen their labor laws in compliance with the ILO. I think that’s really important. You can’t – you have to have – I mean, export processing zones were created entirely to carve out taxes. And then the countries look around and say, during COVID, why is there no money for social protection?

And so I think it’s a whole different model. And I that’s what’s exciting about this moment. If you ask questions about what is needed, what is the model that’s needed to improve the lives of workers while ensuring a sustainable environment, it’s worker centered. It’s this model of talking to workers, having them at the table, and not doing this old kind of, you know, top-down approach, but making sure they are equal partners. And, like Thea said, that’s the cheapest. For the billion-dollar industry that is the social compliance industry, most of it has very little impact in improving lives of workers, is what we have seen as the labor movement. It tweaks things here and there, there might be a better bathroom, a drinking faucet. It does not change the environment in which workers are profoundly working, where their rights are deeply protected and they have a right to organize a union.

So, again, I think having all of these pieces come together – Social Justice Coalition, us having and maintaining dialogue about what works and what doesn’t work, is going to be key to moving forward in this moment.

Ms. Strucke: Thank you so much. So we’re going to take one question from the audience and then wrap up. So we have – raise your hand high. We have a microphone. All right, so it looks like we’ve got one. Please introduce yourself as well, if you don’t mind, when you ask your question. I’ll go with this gentleman because I saw his hand first.

Q: Stanley Kober.

A few weeks ago, Jerome Powell gave an interview in which he said our debt is growing faster than GDP. I interpret that to mean we have tried to grow our way out of the debt. It hasn’t worked. The only alternative is austerity. Now I’m wondering how that austerity will affect labor rights. It’s not just the U.S. It’s around the world. Looking at what’s happening in China with the deflation. If we are facing globally a wave of austerity, leading to beggar thy neighbor policies, how will that affect workers’ rights?

Ms. Feingold: We’ve seen this. (Laughs.) I mean, we’ve seen what austerity does. Austerity becomes an excuse, absolutely, to dismantle – saying we need labor market flexibility, that unions are getting in the way. When, in fact, some of the best models we have for dealing when there are times of crisis or need for change is precisely social dialogue, that you bring business, labor, and governments together to figure out solutions. But absolutely, austerity has never proven to be good for workers. It’s used as excuse to cut social protection programs. In the end, you know, it means that rights protections and the fundamental conversation we’re having here about the need for decent work, are all on the chopping block.

There are many ways when there are financial crises to figure out creative solutions. It doesn’t need to be top down. That’s why developing these social dialogue mechanisms are so key. I just want to say, I think it’s – you know, for those of us that lived through the various crises and the debates around austerity, it’s a favorite. It keeps coming back because, you know, it’s – especially because it gives kind of cover to, you know, weakening – how in a time of crisis can we be talking about increased wages, or increased protections? What a luxury. But I would turn it on its ear. How can you not, during a time of crisis, ensure that the people living in your country have the protections they need to weather a difficult time?

And so it’s the need to make those investments. And I would say, without making those investments people don’t trust the democratic institutions. And we’re paying for that right now. When you erode people’s access to good jobs, to rights and protections, people don’t trust the democratic institutions that are supposed to be delivering for them. And as, you know, the world basically goes into elections right now, we will see the outcome of that. But austerity has never been a friend to working people around the world.

Ms. Strucke: Well, thank you so much. I want to thank every person on this panel and to the director-general for what a great conversation. Let’s give a round of applause. (Applause.)