ILAB at 75: A New Era of Global Action on Labor Rights

Founded in 1947, ILAB's mission is to strengthen global labor standards, enforce labor commitments among trading partners, promote racial and gender equity, and combat international child labor, forced labor, and human trafficking.

Seventy-five years ago this Monday, Oct. 10, then-President Harry S. Truman created the Office of International Labor Affairs in the U.S. Department of Labor. Back then, the international office was much smaller than the Bureau of International Labor Affairs, or ILAB, is today, but it was founded on the same principle – how workers are treated abroad deeply affects how they live and work here in the United States. 

So much has changed since ILAB’s founding: the rise of new technologies and forms of work, the dramatic growth of international trade, the increasingly complex global supply chains that go into producing the goods we use every day.

The Bureau of International Labor Affairs has evolved with the times to strengthen its efforts to protect workers’ rights all over the world. As part of the Biden-Harris administration’s worker-centered trade policy, ILAB is ushering in a new era of global action on labor rights, including the all-important rights to freely choose a union and collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions.

Frances Perkins stands outside speaking with two male delegates to the 1952 International Labor Organization conference in Geneva.
Former Labor Secretary Frances Perkins speaks with delegates to the 1952 ILO conference in Geneva. She helped ensure the U.S., including the Labor Department, played an active role in foreign affairs. Credit: Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University

ILAB works with governments, civil society, unions and business to strengthen global labor standards, enforce labor commitments among trading partners, promote racial and gender equity, and combat international child labor, forced labor, and human trafficking. This is not only the right thing to do, it helps U.S. workers by ensuring they are not competing with exploited labor around the world. 

Over the years, ILAB has accomplished a lot, including:

  • Funding projects to reduce child labor and forced labor globally, contributing to removing more than 86 million children from child labor since 2000.

  • Playing a pivotal role in the International Labor Organization adopting the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, the Convention on Workplace Violence and Harassment and the Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers.

  • Negotiating, creating and applying the most advanced trade-based labor rights enforcement tool in U.S. trade policy: the Rapid Response Labor Mechanism of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which has already led to the resolution of five labor rights cases, ensuring that Mexican workers can freely exercise their right to join an independent and democratic union.

  • Dramatically expanding the global knowledge base on child labor and forced labor, supporting more than 300 surveys on these issues, many of which have led to significant policy changes.

  • Placing ILAB staff as labor attachés in Mexico, Colombia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and at the U.S. Mission in Geneva to advance ILAB's critical work.

  • Deepening engagement and collaboration with other governments by sharing best practices on important economic and workplace issues, including apprenticeship, that have positively impacted domestic policies.

And looking to the future, the bureau, under the steadfast leadership of Deputy Undersecretary Thea Lee, is making bold headway on a number of fronts in defense of the rights of workers everywhere. 

In Mexico, one of our largest and most important trading partners, ILAB is working with our Mexican partners to positively transform labor relations in the country – moving from a system that too often propped up sham protectionist unions that were in the pockets of employers to truly representative union democracy. 

Together with USAID and the State Department, the department has launched the Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment, and Rights – or M-POWER – the largest U.S. commitment ever to securing free, independent and democratic trade unions on a global scale. This work is so critical because when workers have a voice in the workplace and can effectively bargain for better wages and working conditions, this empowers them to fight child labor, forced labor, and other egregious labor abuses.

As the world’s largest funder of programs to combat child labor and forced labor around the world, ILAB recognizes the power of knowledge. That includes making sure that governments, companies and consumers have information on where child labor or forced labor might be found in global supply chains. And that’s why our Office of Child Labor, Forced Labor and Human Trafficking is working with an expanded mandate this year – to track not only the goods produced with child labor or forced labor, but also goods that use inputs produced with child labor or forced labor. Did you know, for example, that the batteries that power our cell phones and electric vehicles often use cobalt produced with child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? By knowing more, we can do more to effect change across the supply chain.

The world has certainly changed since 1947. And while the focus of our Bureau of International Labor Affairs has never wavered, its strategies and tactics have necessarily evolved. I am proud of the innovative work ILAB does, and will continue to do, to lift up workers’ rights worldwide. 

Marty Walsh is the U.S. Secretary of Labor. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @SecMartyWalsh.