Just this month, at a meeting of the Organization of American States, Secretary of State John Kerry discussed the need to redefine the U.S. relationship with our hemispheric neighbors. This new era, Secretary Kerry said, will require us to make decisions together “as partners to advance the values and the interests that we share.” Two weeks ago, at the Inter-American Conference of Ministers of Labor (the labor component of the OAS) in Medellin, Colombia, I saw this new era of shared responsibility and values-based partnerships in action.
Labor ministers and deputy ministers from across the Americas and the Caribbean discussed some of our region’s most important labor issues – workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively, the relationship between economic growth and job creation, income inequality, social protections and social dialogue, youth unemployment, and others. A great deal of work remains to be done to ensure workers a fair share of our region’s prosperity and expanding trade. Many countries need stronger labor inspectorates and more aggressive implementation of existing labor laws. Others need law reform to meet international labor standards. I was heartened that workers’ rights and employment are leading issues for the countries that attended the IACML. Nonetheless, the United States must remain engaged and continue to lead if there is to be a leveling up of labor standards among our trading partners and neighbors.
The wave of joblessness caused by the Great Recession significantly increased risks for working families across this hemisphere. And the recovery from the recession has been uneven. Unemployment remains unacceptably high in some regions and among certain populations, including younger workers, workers with disabilities, indigenous peoples, and racial minorities. The United States has aggressively advocated for macroeconomic policies across the world that are principally focused on promoting job creation. But merely creating more jobs is not enough. New jobs must be decent jobs that deliver a fair income, voice and security in the workplace, social protection, opportunities for social integration, and equality of opportunity. Stable, sustainable jobs like these will expand growth in local and national economies. Jobs that shift unacceptable levels of risk onto workers will not.
Among the greatest threats to decent jobs in our region is precarious work. Precarious work denies millions of workers – domestic workers, migrant workers, part-time workers, temporary workers, other workers in the informal sector – workplace benefits, employment security, and legal protections. In the United States, we often speak of workers being paid “under the table,” including employees who are misclassified as “independent contractors” and, as a result, do not benefit from unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and minimum wage and overtime protections, among other things. In other words, workers bear essentially all workplace risks, and employers assume none.
Our partners in the Americas and the Caribbean generally agree on the need for effective standards to protect workers and help move them from the informal sector to more stable employment. I emphasized in my remarks at the IACML that agreement is just the beginning. We must not allow a permanent – and growing – division of our workforces into one group of well-protected workers in the formal economy and a second, expanding group of workers who do not receive basic protections and benefits because they toil in an informal sector. I challenged our hemispheric partners to meet the conditions of the IACML Declaration relating to precarious work before our next meeting in two years.
During my remarks, I also highlighted the need for effective unemployment insurance systems as one form of social protection against recessions and narrower economic downturns. Unemployment insurance systems do not benefit only the workers who receive payments. Unemployed workers use their benefits to pay bills, buy groceries, and otherwise support their families. Certainly, these funds provide a measure of security for the millions of working families in the U.S. who receive them. And without them, some unemployed workers in the Americas and the Caribbean are forced into precarious work because they must find some way to support their families after losing a job. But unemployment benefits also ensure continued consumer spending where it would otherwise be absent at a time when national economies need it most. Seventy percent of the American economy is built on consumer spending, and the economies of many of our neighbors operate similarly. Unemployment insurance systems can act as automatic stabilizers during economic downturns. I urged our neighbors to work with us to establish unemployment insurance systems in their countries. I am delighted to report that Mexico is about to create its first national UI system, and we have had discussions with other countries in the region about following suit.
In addition to the formal conference, the IACML offered opportunities to engage in bilateral meetings with selected partners in the region. In 2011, President Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos signed the Colombian Action Plan Related to Labor Rights associated with the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement. Ever since, the Labor Department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs has been working closely with the Colombian government to implement the Action Plan. Recognizing some of the advances Colombia has made in the last two years, but also acknowledging that there is a great deal more work to be done, I had a frank conversation with Colombian Labor Minister Rafael Pardo regarding the steps required to satisfy the Action Plan. Minister Pardo and I also agreed to continue meeting into 2014 in order to continue implementation of the Action Plan commitments.
At the end of the same week, I also participated in an International Forum on Employment and Social Security Public Policy hosted by the Mexican Labor Minister Alfonso Navarrete in Mexico City. I spoke on a panel about the importance of innovation in the U.S. skills training system as a driver for growth, and a necessity in a modern, developed economy. Corporations increasingly look to the availability of skilled labor – or at least, an infrastructure that can produce a pipeline of skilled workers – when making decisions about where to site new factories and other facilities. Skills training, driven by regional business needs and available job openings, is a necessity. President Obama has made innovative programs to create and expand these pipelines a key element of his economic agenda. Programs like the Labor Department’s Trade Adjustment and Community College Career Training grants and Workforce Innovation Fund, with their emphasis on partnerships with employers to identify the skills their businesses demand, can and should be models of innovative approaches to workforce development throughout the Americas and the Caribbean. The recently announced CareerConnect grants program, a joint project of the Labor and Education Departments, similarly seeks to bring employers and high schools together to ensure that graduates are ready to compete in 21st-century labor markets. We expect it will create a host of models worth emulating.
These trips to Medellin, Colombia, and Mexico City, Mexico, are part of an expanding effort in the Labor Department to engage aggressively with our partners, particularly our trading partners, to elevate labor standards around the world. No one conference or meeting will achieve our result. We made important progress at the IACML and the Mexico City forum, but U.S. engagement must remain focused, constant and values-based. Secretary Perez and I are committed to maintaining that effort throughout President Obama’s second term.
Seth D. Harris is the U.S. deputy secretary of labor.