Remarks on the Impact of Rights in the World of Work

Remarks by Robert A. Destro, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Organization of American States, Washington, DC
International Labor Organization Centennial Conference
November 20, 2019

Thank you, Mr. Cassidy, for your kind introduction.  Director Ryder, Deputy Secretary Pizzella, Secretary General Almagro, Ambassadors and friends, I am honored to help the International Labor Organization celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first International Labor Conference, and pleased to be with you today to commemorate the century of service and leadership the ILO has provided to the working men and women of the world.

Though it is traditional at centennials to look back on the accomplishments of the first century, I can best be of service to the ILO and its supporters by focusing on the future.  Today is, after all, a celebration of the start of the ILO’s second century.

My remarks today will approach the challenges ahead through a very personal lens.  Nearly every working member of my extended family in Ohio was a union member.  So too were my wife, who worked for a union when we met, and my late mother-in-law.  My first assignments as a lawyer were employment and labor arbitration cases involving public school teachers, cafeteria workers, and janitors.  It is the stories of workers like these, not the grand texts of international labor agreements, that explain why our Bureau is called “Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.” 

From the fired cafeteria worker, to the men and women trapped in hereditary slavery still practiced in Mauritania, or the worker whose livelihood is eroded or stolen because of goods produced by forced labor, each story is uniquely human. Each story belongs to a real man, woman, or child whose dignity is assaulted or not considered. Each labor abuse hurts us all. 

I want to underscore and explain this point.  How is it possible that the oppression or exploitation of a worker in a factory in Xinjiang or Mauritania affects us all?  The answer, I submit, requires that we re-examine what we mean when we use the term “labor.”

In common parlance, the word “labor” can be used as either a verb or as a collective noun.  Though “labor” is what workers do, the more common usage is the collective noun.  Thus, when we speak of “labor” in the collective sense, we refer both to large groups of working people, and to a commodity that, in purely economic terms, is often viewed as merely “a value-added along extended supply chains.” 

As we look to the second century of ILO’s service, we must consciously remind ourselves that, while “production systems are increasingly fragmented and spread over many countries and regions,” the work gets done by actual human beings who live and work in local communities defined by kinship, language, faith, and culture.  An assault on these aspects of our humanity is an assault on labor.

Our tendency to focus on labor “as a commodity” also conditions our thinking—so it is appropriate, on occasions like this one, to remind ourselves that men and women are not economic units.  Human beings do not always make perfectly rational decisions to maximize utility or profit.  We strike balances between and among the demands of our own talents and needs, and those of our families, communities, and co-workers. Men and women are more accurately described as members of the species Homo faber.  Man, the maker. Men and women build things, we interact with our environments, and we create ideas, buildings, works of art and literature, useful objects, and things of beauty. We create, not solely for ourselves, but also for the enjoyment and comfort of others.  We can do this if, and only if, each of us is free, as Michelangelo put it, to see the angel in the block of marble, and “carv until set him free.” 

This is the human face of labor, and it is the aspect of the labor market regularly ignored in the debate over the merits of a global economy. We neglect the human factor at our peril.  Real human communities are decimated when governments and business prioritize the efficiency of global supply chains over the welfare of their own people.  

The theme of today’s event shows us the way forward: “Creating a Brighter Future of Work, Together.” As a labor lawyer, I especially like that last word—Together.  It resonates. It is at the heart of the ILO’s model. The ILO’s tripartite governance structure reflects its founders’ understanding that human flourishing and peace depend on our working together for the common good: workers, employers, and communities alike. We are bound together. 

The greatest challenge facing the ILO in its second century will be to navigate the treacherous cross-pressures that define the politics of the modern economy.  We can only do that together. 

As a multilateral organization, the ILO is pressed by donor and member states. Some of that pressure can certainly be justified on the grounds that accountability requires pressure, but much of it cannot.  Unless we focus clearly, we will not see how member and donor nations will try to shift the ILO’s vision for the future. 

To whose vision of “the good” will the ILO be accountable in the next hundred years? Powerful economic interests? Or the needs of ordinary workers around the globe?

We will know the answer by looking at the priorities of ILO leadership.  If their priority is the freedom of workers to flourish, ILO’s leadership will become constant and highly vocal advocates for the freedom of individuals, labor associations and local communities.

They will also be advocates for the democratic systems that protect those freedoms.

The founders of the ILO explicitly recognized the connection between strong labor rights and human flourishing. They recognized that democracy was the system most capable of protecting those aims. They understood, from the bitter experiences that necessitated the ILO’s creation, that the strongest, most brutal repression of labor rights happens in nations where the interests of leaders, driven by ideology or self-interest, stand squarely at odds with the vision of the ILO.

At this, the celebration of the ILO’s second century, we must stand firmly against any and all efforts accommodate the aims or practices of such nations and ideologies. Technical assistance is important, but it is not enough.  Moral leadership and example must come first.

The ILO’s record speaks for itself.   Some of its greatest achievements on behalf of workers’ rights have come when it stood with workers against repressive regimes seeking to crush those seeking freedom and democratic change.

ILO supported Solidarity in Poland.  By doing so, it empowered the Polish people and gave new hope to the Polish nation.

ILO supported efforts to end the inhuman and repressive regime of apartheid in South Africa. By doing so, it gave South African labor leaders and workers the freedom to envision a better future for themselves and their children.

It is no exaggeration to say that the ILO’s successes have changed the course of millions of lives and the futures of nations.  For exactly the same reason, ILO’s efforts to challenge repression must continue.

This year, the ILO’s Commission of Inquiry helped to spotlight the attacks on workers and employers by the former Maduro regime in Venezuela. I urge this body to keep up that international pressure. The people of Venezuela are counting on us.

In Iran, the ILO must further elevate the voices of striking truckers and teachers and leverage its influence to protect them – until the Iranian regime realizes their oppressive tactics are futile and fruitless.

And in Xinjiang, China, ethnic Uighurs and members of other minority groups are subjected to forced labor in violation of international standards, Chinese law, and fundamental human rights. The Communist Party calls this “vocational training.”  It isn’t. 

What is happening in Xinjiang is an affront to the fundamental principles of the ILO. The ILO must stand against such practices wherever they occur. The United States will stand with the ILO – in word and deed.

Last month, United States Customs and Border Protection sent a powerful message when it announced a Withhold Release Order for garments produced at a factory in Xinjiang that relies on forced labor. Goods produced by forced labor have no place in the American market or in any other.

We call on the ILO to continue to stand with us on this issue.  The challenge of forced labor, among the many other challenges the ILO will face in its second century, will test the resolve of its leaders as never before.  How it responds to this challenge will speak volumes about its institutional commitment to its founding principles.

Authoritarian systems that crush their own people will pressure that ILO to remain silent, and, if it does not, attempts to dominate and control will follow. ILO’s efforts will be resisted by countries and political leaders who fear the power of organized labor, and the potential that ILO-sponsored programs offer. ILO must choose, but it should understand that accommodating nations and systems that repress and crush men and women around the globe into commodities is not really an option. The pressure will be intense, and the advocates of the dark path I have described will use every trick in the book to convince ILO’s leaders that their vision of the good is preferable.

This is why we must remember our shared humanity. We must reject the understandable, but insidious, tendency to evaluate the worth of working men and women only by measuring the value they add to raw materials in an extended, global supply chain.

The ILO’s moral center is the protection of human persons and of their right and duty to organize to advance their personal, economic, and political interests. The national and commercial forces arrayed against them are formidable, but they cannot succeed if the ILO remains anchored in the principles that have made its first 100 years such a resounding success.

The United States of America is firmly committed to advancing those principles.  We are proud to be the largest financial supporter of the ILO, and strive to demonstrate our own commitment protect the dignity and worth of our own workers on a daily basis.

If, a hundred years from now, the world is a freer, fairer, more prosperous place; If dysfunctional national and transnational systems that oppress workers and the associations they form have crumbled under the weight of their own moral and economic bankruptcy; I am confident it will be because of the work and moral clarity of the member nations in this room, and because of the commitment and devotion of the men and women who are, together, the International Labor Organization.

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak, and to join with you in this celebration of the next 100 years of the ILO!