Guest columnist Thea Lee: This Labor Day, Smith College grad reflects on work for US Department of Labor

  • Thea Lee, a Smith College graduate, is the deputy undersecretary for international affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor. contributed photo

Published: 9/5/2022 9:48:29 AM
Modified: 9/5/2022 9:44:41 AM

The unofficial end to summer, Labor Day is a holiday when some families will attend parades or community celebrations, or head to the beach or do some back-to-school shopping.

For others, though, it’s just another day at work — that brings hope that some extra hours or overtime pay might help make ends meet for one more month.

Through my work with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs, I feel a deep connection to, and responsibility for, all workers. At the department, we’re committed to empowering all workers morning, noon and night.

Generally, we enjoy labor protections in the U.S. not always shared around the world. But we know that our ability to work at good, safe jobs for decent pay depends on being part of a global economy that values and protects workers’ rights. In many countries, workers face long hours for low or uncertain pay; unsafe workplaces; sexual harassment and gender-based violence; racial, religious, or ethnic discrimination; and forced or child labor. Workers in many countries can face illegal firing, retaliation, or even violence if they join with co-workers to organize a union and collectively bargain.

Since joining the department in May 2021, I’ve worked with the Bureau of International Labor Affairs to help change that equation. We work with governments, civil society, unions and business to strengthen global labor standards and enforce labor commitments among trading partners. We also promote racial and gender equity, and combat international child labor, forced labor and human trafficking.

In the past year, our accomplishments have included:

■ Working closely with the Mexican Labor Ministry and other U.S. government agencies to resolve four labor rights cases under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, ensuring workers can freely exercise their right to join an independent and democratic union in Mexico.

■ Addressing child labor in cobalt mines by working with the Democratic Republic of Congo, and strengthening the government’s labor inspection ability.

■ Working with union activists and responsible businesses in Honduras’ maquiladora sector to strengthen workplace safety.

■ Partnering with the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to launch the Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment and Rights, also known as “M-POWER.”

■ Developing, with the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection Agency, an ambitious and effective enforcement strategy to implement the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, and ensure that U.S. consumers are not unwittingly buying goods tainted with forced labor.

And that’s just one agency in the Labor Department.

Other sister agencies are empowering workers to organize and collectively bargain with their employers here at home. The department is playing a leading role in the federal government’s efforts to protect and advance the rights of America’s workers. Secretary Walsh serves alongside Vice President Kamala Harris as co-chair of the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment. The Worker Organizing Resource Center is a one-stop shop for information and resources on unions and collective bargaining for workers, unions, policymakers and advocates.

Across the department, we remain motivated, because we know our work is important. It touches lives. It affects families. It improves communities.

So, this Labor Day, whether you’re working or enjoying a day off, you can rest assured that every day, Department of Labor employees are committed to making the American Dream possible for workers in cities and towns across the country — including the one I call “home.”

Thea Lee is the deputy undersecretary for international affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor. Lee’s hometown is Newton, Massachusetts. Lee holds a master’s degree in economics from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and a bachelor’s degree in economics cum laude from Smith College in Northampton.
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