Barbara Shailor recently joined Blue Star Strategies as a Special Advisor. Prior to that she was the Special Representative for International Labor Affairs at the Department of State from 2010-2014. To better introduce her to the Blue Star community we conducted a brief interview on the current state of international labor rights and the impact on US foreign policy with a particular focus on upcoming trade negotiations, the role of multi-lateral organizations, and where the US can have an impact.

Blue Star: Jason Furman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors was recently asked about the impact of trade deals on labor standards and he replied that the deals are an opportunity to insist on stronger standards and said, “We’d rather trade with them and have higher labor standards than not.”  Do you agree with this statement? 

Barbara: Furman expresses the hope, if not the reality. Working people across the world have an enormous stake in a global system of rules that ends the race to the bottom in environmental protections, consumer protections and labor standards. By including the protection of workers abroad, we are helping ensure that trade driven growth is inclusive and broad based. Working people will only assume the risks of continued trade integration if they have the confidence that this system will work for them.

Blue Star: How can the U.S. work with other allies–say in Western Europe–to enable the creation of stronger global labor standards and enforcement? 

Barbara: Like the US, the European democracies have an enormous stake in global rules that lift standards across the world rather than undermine them at home.  Our European partners should join the U.S. in championing a stronger social contract as part of trade accords, and in working to enforce those standards. This has taken place, often in reaction to extreme outrages. For example, after the 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh where over a thousand workers were killed, successful efforts to move forward on labor legislation and the protection of workers were closely coordinated with the European Union and the ILO in particular. The challenge is to move this agenda broadly and proactively, not simply in reaction to tragedies that attract international attention.

Blue Star: Can the U.S. lead by example on labor standards? For example by creating stronger protections for migrant workers, raising the minimum wage, assisting victims of labor trafficking etc? 

Barbara: We should be leading by example. Companies and countries are discovering that a corner has been turned, here–and abroad. Several states and cities have lifted the minimum wage above the federal level. Major employers have started to follow. There is a growing recognition that extreme inequality needs to be addressed with concrete proposals in order to create a more robust economy with a broad middle class. We are taking steps on immigration reform. We closely monitor labor trafficking in an annual report on trafficking understanding that there are over 230 million migrant workers that are vulnerable to exploitation.

Blue Star: What sort of international cooperation is necessary in terms of labor and what role can multilateral organization’s play? 

Barbara: The ILO was founded in the aftermath of WWI when the economies of the world were devastated by the war, on the realization that stable peace can only be established if it is based upon social justice. Today, the United States partnership is almost a century old and the ILO continues championing “decent work” standards that are grounded on basic human rights.

After WWII, economic alliances and institutions were created–the IMF, World Bank, and the OECDmultilaterally and remain important institutions that affect working people around the world.  Now, there is an increasing recognition that economic prosperity is threatened by extreme inequality. The challenge is for those institutions to adjust  their programs to address this new realization. 

Blue Star: Given your experience, what advice would you give to policy-makers today who are working to spread greater respect for labor rights around the world?

Barbara:  I think the biggest challenge for policy-makers is to understand that the current system cannot be sustained. The extreme inequality that we see across the world, the financial crises, the pressure on working people, is generating greater and greater instability. Policy makers have to get ahead of this, not simply wait for the next crisis. Companies are adjusting their business models; countries need to change their economic policies; global institutions will need to redefine their rules. 

Already the first steps have been taken. Significant developments of the past 20 years include attaching labor chapters to trade agreements, making labor rights a criterion in areas of trade and investment, and progress in bringing women workers into the formal economy. When labor standards are effectively enforced you see inequality decline and governments better able to meet the expectations of their own people. Policy-makers must see the rights of working people not as adversarial issue with trading partners and the business community but an opportunity to create positive outcomes. 

Blue Star: Lastly-what do you think about the opening in Myanmar and its potential impact on workers?

Barbara: The whole discussion surrounding the opening up Myanmar politically and economically can have reinforcing benefits. Some thought Myanmar would be an economic free for all.  But democratic leaders within Myanmar joined with the labor community, NGOs, the ILO and eventually U.S. and European governments to push for reforms. Labor laws are being created and the people of Myanmar are yearning for a more open society. A little over two years ago Myanmar’s practice of forced labor still existed. In early negotiations the Myanmar government was asked to recognize the ILO Convention on Forced Labor and to establish a clear legal basis for the government to end this practice. All trading partners and multinational companies doing business there have a responsibility to take measures to ensure the effective eradication of forced labor throughout the country. Myanmar’s future course is still contested. But there is some hope that the opening will protect its workers, not simply exploit them.