Today, President Biden became the third sitting U.S. president to address the International Labor Conference in Geneva, the yearly global meeting that brings together unions, employers and governments to develop and adopt international labor standards. The mission of the International Labor Organization (ILO) is to promote social justice and internationally recognized labor and human rights, based on the founding principle that social justice is essential to universal and lasting peace. Biden’s speech underscores this administration’s commitment to a multilateral approach to building a global economic agenda shaped by workers and rooted in the protection of workers’ rights.
Biden’s speech comes at a time of deep global economic, social and environmental crises. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how the system exploits workers, whether we are front-line workers in grocery stores or health care centers or supply chain workers sewing clothing in factories. Before the pandemic, millions of workers worked for low pay, worked informally or were hired through nonstandard forms of employment.
Economic, racial and gender inequality continue to grow and global unemployment is expected to grow to 205 million people in 2022, greatly surpassing the level of 187 million in 2019. Child labor increased for the first time in two decades to 161 million. Cases of reported gender-based violence and harassment increased during the pandemic. More than half of the world’s workers do not have a single social protection and millions of working families face growing insecurity as their communities face the impacts of climate change.
The president’s participation at the conference reflects the administration’s commitment to addressing the many challenges facing the global community by building collective responses through multilateralism and policies that deliver decent work and protect rights for all workers. In the current global economic model, government and corporations continue to profit off of forced labor, egregious worker rights violations, weak health and safety protections, and environmental degradation. The ILO plays a critical role in the international community through challenging corporate-driven globalization and shaping the frameworks needed to rebuild a resilient global economy with high standards for all workers.
The speeches and policy commitments made at international fora like the International Labor Conference must be translated into real commitments by government and employers to build a new social contract for all workers that will guarantee decent work, worker rights and social protection. This new contract is critical to rebuilding workers’ trust in democracy. The pandemic underscores the need to recognize occupational health and safety as a fundamental right, along with freedom of association, collective bargaining, nondiscrimination, and protections against forced and child labor. The right to strike must be protected as a cornerstone of workers’ freedom of association. From delivery drivers to warehouse workers to garment workers, the right to strike is a powerful tool used before and during the pandemic that allows workers to protect ourselves from the virus and improve our working conditions.
Throughout its history, unions have worked with employers and governments to shape the agenda of the International Labor Conference to reflect the changing needs of the global workforce. In 2011, unions, domestic worker and allied organizations worked with employers and governments to pass the first global standards protecting domestic workers, and in 2019 the International Labor Conference approved the first international treaty to eliminate gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace. Since the adoption of these conventions, dozens of countries have taken action to strengthen protections for domestic workers and eliminate gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace. These global ILO standards, when translated into national and local legislation, concretely improve the lives of workers around the world.
The yearly conference reminds the world that we must be ambitious and create and implement global standards that transform the lives of workers and empower us. Biden’s speech at this year’s International Labor Conference reminds the global community that to build a more just, democratic, global economy, the rights and needs of workers and our families must be central to policymaking. The ILO’s original vision to ensure shared prosperity for the global community is once again central to the challenge of guaranteeing dignity, rights and protections for all workers and our families.
This blog originally appeared at ALF-CIO on June 17, 2021. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Cathy Feingold is a leading advocate on global workers’ rights issues. As director of the AFL-CIO’s International Department, Feingold is a committed and passionate advocate, strategic campaigner and policy expert.