February 28, 2017

Former Deputy Undersecretary of the US Department of Labor’s ILAB, Gears Up for New ABA ROLI Program

Rule of law is the bedrock of democratic, inclusive and productive societies. Without rule of law governing workers’ rights, labor-management relations, business productivity and workers suffer. There is a growing need and demand for integrating workers’ rights into broader rule of law development efforts. With the anticipated launch of the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative’s (ABA ROLI) new Workers’ Rights Program, ABA ROLI plans to respond both by filling the gap and realizing the natural synergies between programs that involve traditional justice sector strengthening and protecting more traditional civil and political rights and programs that advance the rule of law governing workers' rights.

ABA ROLI recently interviewed Carol Pier, the former deputy undersecretary for international affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) (2013-17) to discuss plans for the new ABA ROLI initiative she will be spearheading.

ABA ROLI: Why is the rule of law important to workers’ rights?

Pier: Rule of law governing workers’ rights is critical to a favorable global investment climate and to protecting the rights of workers throughout global supply chains. Rule of law on labor provides predictability, order, efficiency and a means to resolve workplace disputes, helping employers and workers make decisions with a clear understanding of the consequences. The result is good for business and good for workers and imperative for achieving a level global playing field that rejects the illegitimate comparative advantage gained by worker exploitation.

ABA ROLI: Can you clarify how workers’ rights play a role in developing industrial relations?

Pier: Rule of law on workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively establishes and defines workers’ right to form and join unions of their choosing, to freely engage in good-faith negotiations with their employer, and to strike. It also establishes, however, parameters for exercising these rights, setting limits on when and where organizing activity must be allowed and the scope of permissible strike activity. In other words, rule of law on freedom of association clearly sets out both rights and responsibilities for workers and employers, which is critical for successful and productive labor-management relations.

ABA ROLI: Can you provide a concrete example of how workers’ rights can affect change?

Pier: Mexico’s labor justice system provides an illustrative, concrete case study. Mexico’s 1917 constitution established a labor justice system largely administered by Conciliation and Arbitration Boards (CABs), which over time demonstrated systemic bias and a lack of transparency and consistently ruled against democratic, independent unions attempting to challenge the entrenched status quo. The CABs’ lack of impartiality and predictability, which often included lengthy and frivolous delays, cost Mexican employers time and money and undermined Mexican workers’ rights. Last fall, Mexico’s Congress passed constitutional labor reforms to abolish the CABs and establish a new labor justice system, including transferring most CAB responsibilities to new labor courts. If successfully implemented, these constitutional reforms will transform Mexico’s labor justice system and bring the country one significant step forward towards rule of law on workers’ rights.

ABA ROLI: What approach will the proposed ABA ROLI Workers’ Rights Program take to strengthen the rule of law on workers’ rights, globally?

Pier: The proposed ABA ROLI Workers’ Rights Program would strengthen rule of law on workers’ rights globally, through targeted technical assistance, capacity building, and policy and legal guidance to assist willing governments with the development and implementation of reforms like Mexico’s. The program would primarily adopt a three-pronged approach, adjusted to fit each particular country case: working with countries to improve their labor laws and regulations; strengthening countries’ administrative and judicial labor law enforcement systems; and helping to ensure that workers, employers and their organizations know their rights and responsibilities and how to claim and fulfill them. 

There is a growing need and demand for rule of law on workers’ rights globally. This is apparent, for example, in the inclusion of workers’ rights in the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Decent Work Agenda, the global movement to strengthen worker voice, the increased attention to protecting workers’ rights in the context of free trade, and the growing consensus around responsible business practices and supply chain codes of conduct calling for respect for workers’ rights. Notwithstanding this demand, there are currently inadequate attention and resources paid to labor rule of law. The ABA ROLI Workers’ Rights Program would step into this void and help fill this growing and important gap.

To learn more about the development of our Workers’ Rights Program, please contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at rol@americanbar.org