Labor Department Attaches Fighting Violations Overseas

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By Tyrone Richardson

April 5 — The Labor Department is reviving an international labor diplomacy concept born in the 1940s as it promotes worker rights and labor standards in countries such as Honduras, Bangladesh and Colombia.

Since at least the 1940s, there have been federal programs placing labor specialists within U.S. embassies. The concept, which has waxed and waned throughout the decades, got new life in 2014. That year, the department's Bureau of International Labor Affairs launched its “labor attache” program. The program embeds senior-level ILAB officials within U.S. embassies, addressing labor law violations associated with trade pacts.

This year, ILAB plans to at least double the number of labor attaches based within U.S. embassies in Bangladesh and Colombia. The growth of the program depends on funding in the ILAB operations budget.

The labor attaches, paid from ILAB's budget, are temporarily part of the State Department's embassy staff tasked with helping host countries protect workers rights, stamp out violence against unionists, and improve conditions in factories. ILAB and university professors touted the idea as bolstering U.S. embassy staff with regards to labor relations, and aiding both the U.S. and its host nation.

“The labor attache program is an important strategic tool for monitoring, enforcing, and facilitating U.S. trading partners’ compliance with their trade-related labor commitments,” Deputy Undersecretary of Labor for International Affairs Carol Pier told Bloomberg BNA March 24. “By placing senior DOL experts on international labor matters in-country, the program also elevates the importance of international labor diplomacy.”

More Attaches for TPP Nations?

The AFL-CIO told Bloomberg BNA March 29 that the program is “a good start” on helping to thwart international labor violations. The labor federation is also suggesting broadening the ILAB program, including housing labor attaches in U.S. embassies in many of the countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a contested 12-nation trade pact .

“There is somebody in most of the U.S. embassies who handles trade as an issue, but they are not necessarily folks who come from a labor background and understand the issues. Other countries handle it differently with labor officers and they come from the labor movement,” said Celeste Drake, a trade and globalization policy specialist for the AFL-CIO. “The labor attache program is a good start to have somebody who is well trained and understands labor rights and issues.”

The AFL-CIO has been critical of the effectiveness of some U.S. efforts to thwart labor law violations overseas, including in countries such as Colombia .

Recharging International Labor Diplomacy

The ILAB labor attache program marks the latest concept for international labor diplomacy. Since at least the 1940s, there have been federal programs to address international labor and employment concerns by placing specialized labor experts within U.S. embassies .

That includes foreign service officers who have served as labor officers in embassies, tasked with reporting labor conditions and advocating for the improvement of worker rights in host countries such as Haiti, Nicaragua, Nigeria and Brazil. Some of the labor officers came from the DOL, which participated in an exchange program with the State Department. The exchange program ended in 2001, DOL officials said.

Lance Compa, an international labor law professor at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, told Bloomberg BNA March 31 that the revived labor diplomacy program benefits both the U.S. and the host nation.

“Now the State Department has revived and strengthened the labor attache program because in many countries good labor conditions, labor laws, and respect for labor rights are critically important for their economic development and for their trade relations with the United States, since our trade agreements require adherence to international core labor standards,” he said. “A positive performance on labor rights is also important for their standing in the international community as a country that respects human rights and labor rights.”

Many U.S. embassies already handle such issues with State Department staffers, such as economic officers tasked with maintaining economic and trade relations between the U.S. and other countries, according to the agency's website. Compa said an economic officer may not have the know-how when it comes to some labor issues, however.

“In some countries, responsibility for labor issues fell to an embassy economic officer or someone else who didn't have experience and expertise in labor matters, and who saw their job as only promoting economic development without regard to workers’ rights,” he said. “Not that they were anti workers’ rights; they just didn’t know anything about labor rights or about international labor standards.”

Beefing up Embassy Labor Expertise

ILAB officials say the labor attache bolsters a U.S. embassy's ability to address labor and employment issues immediately, going beyond facilitating action plans.

“Their role extends beyond the text of the plans, however, to include broader engagement with key labor stakeholders, monitoring labor issues that arise and unfold in real time, and general labor diplomacy activities,” Pier said.

ILAB's labor attache program began in August 2014 as part of the Bangladesh Action Plan, a basis for reinstating the country's Generalized System of Preferences benefits that allow for duty-free U.S. imports . The plan addresses worker safety problems following some high-profile fatalities involving manufacturing companies in Bangladesh. These included the November 2012 Tazreen Fashions factory fire and the April 2013 Rana Plaza manufacturing building collapse, as well as violence against labor activists .

The attache program places a senior-level ILAB staffer within a U.S. embassy for at least a two-year span, ushering in labor improvements outlined in an action plan.

Improving Conditions in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, for example, the labor attache is tasked with an action plan improving factory inspections and implementing labor law reforms to address concerns about freedom of association and collective bargaining.

The labor attache in Bangladesh is Paula Albertson, who previously served in Washington as ILAB's division chief for monitoring and enforcement of free trade agreements.

Albertson told Bloomberg BNA March 16 that there have been improvements in the country's manufacturing industry since her arrival, but work remains.

“There’s a history of mistrust that runs deep and that’s a very challenging issue that runs deep in the garment sector and for the country as a whole,” she said. “The constant progress can be a challenge and slower than you want. There are often times when there is fear of change and fear of the unknown, but the more information I can provide and give examples of the positive impact, the better chance there is for change.”

Improving factory safety conditions is one key goal. For Albertson, that means duties such as factory tours and meetings with workers, employers and government officials.

“I meet with the different people and what is interesting here is that someone who lives here can meet with the unions, the private sector, its workers, the government,” she said. “You can hear the various positions and you can build relationships with the people and understand where they’re coming from and who is the decision maker and what motivates them. This helps you know how to advance the policy.”

Albertson has also helped the Bangladesh government populate a database pinpointing locations and assessment data about the manufacturing plants in the country. The database outlines conditions at about 3,000 factories in the country, an improvement over the dearth of such online information that existed when she arrived in 2014, Albertson said.

Having the data up and accessible is encouraging, Albertson said. “The next step is to get the factories to resolve issues in the safety assessment,” she added.

Improving Workplace Standards

ILAB's Pier told Bloomberg BNA that the accomplishments of attaches like Albertson show the importance of the program for improving conditions overseas.

“The success of the labor attache program is demonstrated through the concrete progress on labor rights and working conditions that the attaches have helped achieve through their intensive, dogged, on-the-ground efforts, including daily monitoring of labor concerns; ongoing, high-level, and impactful engagement with labor and other relevant government authorities; and regular meetings with key labor stakeholders,” Pier wrote in an e-mail to Bloomberg BNA.

ILAB also has an attache in the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Columbia, part of the labor action plan accompanying the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement . ILAB is also in various stages of placing labor attaches in U.S. embassies in Vietnam and Honduras this year, officials said. The two placements are also tied to specific duties to thwart labor law violations. That includes institutional reforms in Vietnam under the TPP, and the monitoring and action plan in Honduras .

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has generally praised action plans as means to improve conditions overseas and level the playing field with American workers.

In an April 2015 blog, the USTR lauded the labor attache in Colombia.

“Colombia is only the second country to which DOL has sent a labor attache, highlighting the importance this Administration places on ensuring respect for labor rights in Colombia,” according to the post. “The new labor attache will be able to intensify our engagement with Colombia on areas of ongoing concern under the Action Plan and build on our important existing relationships with local Colombian stakeholders, including in the labor community.”

Officials at the USTR didn't respond to Bloomberg BNA's request for comment March 28-April 4.

Cornell's Compa said putting ILAB officials in foreign countries adds a “tremendous value” because they're well-versed in areas such as labor law standards.

“It is indispensable to have high quality, world-class international labor experts on the ground in these countries,” he said. “They know how to deal with all the actors involved in labor.”

Expansion Tied to Funding

ILAB officials told Bloomberg BNA the labor attache plan could be broadened to more countries. But expansions are largely dependent on additional funds in the ILAB budget, to cover costs such as hiring replacements in Washington to fill vacancies created by deployed staffers.

“Country-specific needs will dictate the particular scope of each labor attache’s portfolio, but any tweaks or changes to the overall program will be predicated on securing future funding, as we requested in our proposed FY17 budget, to ensure the program’s sustainability,” Pier said.

President Barack Obama has asked Congress to approve $101 million in discretionary spending for ILAB in the budget year that starts Oct. 1, a $15 million increase. The additional funds are intended to increase ILAB's “technical assistance to countries on workers’ rights issues and double the number of staff responsible for monitoring and enforcement,” according to the proposal.

AFL-CIO: Expand Labor Attache With TPP

The AFL-CIO's Drake said the labor attache program has room for growth, especially involvement in countries that are part of the proposed TPP.

Unions have been critical of the TPP, saying U.S. jobs could be lost in the deal, which also includes some nations with a history of labor law violations .

Drake said placing a labor attache in some of the countries before inking a trade pact would be a good “minimum starting place.”

“There are countries in there with severe labor problems, such as Mexico, Vietnam and Malaysia and some of the smaller countries too,” she said. “This is a program to make sure we have labor attaches in all these places, and in some cases more than one.”

Cornell's Compa said that adding a TPP provision requiring the placement of U.S. labor attaches would be a benefit.

“There's no question about it, having someone in Vietnam, Malaysia and other countries in the TPP would be good,” he said. “It's good to have eyes and ears and expertise on the ground to make sure those agreements are implemented.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Tyrone Richardson in Washington at trichardson@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com