POLITICO Pro Q&A: Thea Lee of the Bureau of International Labor Affairs

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*This article was originally made available to POLITICO Pro subscribers on 06/01/2021 at 05:00 AM EDT

U.S. and Mexican unions filed the first labor complaint under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement’s "rapid response mechanism" earlier this month, urging the Biden administration to investigate claims of labor violations at an auto parts factory in Tamaulipas, Mexico. That means Thea Lee, the Labor Department's new Deputy Undersecretary for International Labor Affairs, will take the first test drive of the enforcement model built into the USMCA, along with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. They have 30 days to review the petition and determine whether there is enough evidence to pursue a probe.

Lee, who most recently led a left-leaning think tank, the Economic Policy Institute, and was a former top aide at the AFL-CIO, says that enforcing international labor rights bolsters collective bargaining and worker protections in the U.S. In a conversation with POLITICO, Lee discussed the direction she wants to take the agency’s enforcement posture, current complaints about companies in Mexico, and when to expect the USMCA labor council to first meet.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

How will your enforcement efforts at the Bureau of International Labor Affairs ensure that American jobs are protected?

The vision that President [Joe] Biden, Secretary [Marty] Walsh, [and] Vice President [Kamala] Harris have is that the U.S. needs to and must be engaged in the global economy. But we should do it in a way that we need a set of rules.

American workers can't exercise their rights to freedom of association, they can't be assured that they won't be undermined by global trade and outsourcing if we don't protect workers rights around the world. So making sure that American workers are not competing with child labor or forced labor; with workers who cannot exercise their right to form a union; who might face violence or repression or certainly, firing and other illegal activities. Protecting those rights for workers everywhere is essential to protecting those rights for American workers.

When it comes to the Mexico cases that have come up recently, can you provide us an update on the U.S. Trade Representative’s request for a labor rights investigation at the General Motors plant in central Mexico and the petition filed by the AFL-CIO and the SEIU over abuses at Tridonex, an auto parts factory in Tamaulipas, Mexico?

Both of those cases are ongoing. We are reviewing all the evidence and working very closely with the Mexican government to examine the evidence that's been put forward and to make decisions. I don't think anything is final at this point.

We're excited that the case at GM is the first time that the U.S. government has self-initiated a case. And that is something that we hope will be a harbinger of future, more proactive actions to come, that the U.S. wants to be more engaged, more proactive, more strategic about how we monitor and enforce the labor commitments in trade agreements.

So I think both of these are at a very early stage: We're still in the information gathering and review stage.

That same week, Mexico accused the United States of inadequately protecting migrant worker rights in meatpacking and other agricultural sectors. How do you respond to that? Do you think there's a potential USMCA violation there?

We very much appreciate the Mexican government, the Mexican ambassador bringing some of those issues to our attention. They're certainly things that the Wage and Hour Division is looking into and is monitoring closely.

I think it's no secret that the U.S. government has enforcement issues of its own; that we need to work harder, we need to do better. And we are certainly focused on doing that. So I appreciate the focus on these issues — they're issues we take pretty seriously, as you can imagine — and look forward to working closely with the Mexican consulate to make sure that workers are getting all the protections that they need and deserve.

Can you talk about how the agency is gearing up for this new enforcement role under the USMCA?

So ILAB is going to — I hope — play a very important role in making sure that all the countries in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement are living up to their labor commitments. And part of that is reviewing and enforcing the complaints that are brought to our attention. But another big piece of it is more proactive: It is around technical assistance and capacity-building in both Mexico and the northern triangle countries.

We have a pretty significant program of technical assistance and worker rights measures that we are going to be putting into place over the next four or five years in Mexico. [There’s] a pretty significant amount of money that the U.S. Congress has allocated towards this. We also will have folks on the ground in Mexico who can be kind of liaison points and informational points that will help make connections with civil society groups, unions, government and business groups in Mexico. So we will be doing safety and health work, child labor force, labor and freedom of association and helping to strengthen the democratic voice for Mexican workers through these programs.

I see the enforcement mechanisms as a way of focusing attention. Filing one of these cases is certainly something that gets the business community's attention, it gets the government's attention, and that's an important motivator. But at the end of the day, you have to also build the capacity to enforce the laws and to make the transition [in] Mexico from some of these protection unions to more legitimate democratic collective bargaining agreements and union representation.

Could you talk about what the Biden administration will be doing to take on concerns about China's labor practices?

I think it's too early to say. I haven't even had conversations interagency about worker rights in China. But we're going to be working very closely with the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, with the National Security Council, the State Department and others. I want ILAB and the Labor Department to be a key part of developing a comprehensive and strategic China policy. And I very much hope and very much believe that workers rights should be a key element of that.

I personally think this is an important issue. My family has roots in China. My dad was born in China and came to the U.S. as a little boy. I still have relatives in China. And so I've always believed that Chinese workers deserve better, they deserve to be able to exercise all of their rights under the International Labor Organization, especially freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively.

I think given the importance of the bilateral economic relationship between the United States and China, this seems like an issue that deserves a lot of attention. But no decisions have been made at this point.

A lot of things we’ve talked about with enforcement of the USMCA seem kind of far off. What can we expect in the short-term from ILAB?

I think even having the rapid response mechanism in place, having negotiated that in the USMCA, does send a message to government, to business, to workers, to unions, to civil society organizations that there will be enhanced scrutiny on labor rights practices and outcomes.

I think that's healthy; I think people are on notice. And we certainly see that there was a lot of attention, maybe a little bit of angst around the cases that have been filed under the USMCA.

I want every business to ask itself, ‘Am I in compliance with the international labor rights that are put forward in the USMCA?’ I want governments to be asking themselves, 'Are we in compliance? Are we not in compliance?’ And so I think that's a healthy piece. We're going to use the bully pulpit, we're going to use the trade commitments, and we're going to use our technical assistance to send a consistent message across the board about how we value workers' rights, and I think that will be effective.

This is an important economic relationship for all three countries, of course, and we hope we can have a really good, robust dialogue. We'll have our first U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement Labor Council meeting, before the first-year anniversary of the USMCA, and so that will be an opportunity to again elevate these issues and to have hopefully an honest and constructive dialogue about them.

Has a date been set for that yet?

Not quite, but we hope to do it before the July [1] anniversary.

What do you want to do with this office and what direction do you want to take? What challenges do you anticipate in implementing your agenda?

There's always a lot of challenges. There's a lot of bureaucracy; there's certainly pushback from various stakeholders. But I also think we're at a moment where we had a global pandemic and we saw firsthand how vulnerable working people are around the world. We also saw how connected we are — whether it's global supply chains or it is the transnational transmission of disease — that if we don't take care of working people around the world, if we don't make sure that workers can exercise their basic rights, that we are all made more vulnerable, we are all made less safe. And so I hope that we can build on and learn from the lessons that we learned during this rough year that we've had and use that to build more international consensus and cooperation.

The way I like to look at it in terms of ILAB is that we want to use the leverage — which is through the trade agreements, the resources through the technical assistance, and the voice of the U.S. government — to send that message that workers’ rights are essential to a robust and equitable recovery and also a harmonious global economy. We are part of the global economy, we can't turn our back on that. But we can do our best to make sure that we are putting our resources and our energy into making sure that it isn't a global economy just for business, but it's a global economy for working people. And I think that will ultimately be good for the American economy and certainly for American workers.

What is a reasonable expectation for the number of complaints that will be brought under the USMCA’s rapid response mechanism?

I don't have an answer in terms of [whether] it's going to be six cases or 100 cases. But what I hope is that the cases that are brought will be good cases, so that we can really use them to change behavior and to change expectations. I think it's early to say. Certainly, what the rapid response mechanism does is open up the process so that it isn't quite so limited to government actors that may or may not have the best interests of working people at heart.

And so what we want to do is create a lot of channels so that we can at least receive information and be able to evaluate the merits of claims and allegations that occur, and hopefully be able to address some of them in a way that really changes people's lives.

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