Meet the Expert: Carol Pier
At AIR, Carol Pier co-leads a growing portfolio of international labor technical assistance programming, with projects in Mexico and Honduras. Over the course of her career, she has focused on advancing workers’ rights, acceptable conditions of work, living standards, and inclusive economic growth and development globally. Prior to joining AIR, she served as the deputy undersecretary for international affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor and as a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
POSITION: Managing Director for International Labor
AREA OF EXPERTISE: International workers’ rights
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 20+
Q: What sparked your interest in the field of international workers’ rights?
Carol: Two formative experiences led me down this path. During my sophomore year in college, I studied abroad in Mexico City. Every morning, I rode a bus from the last stop on the subway’s pink line to an elite university, always passing through incredibly impoverished neighborhoods on the way. Seeing such extreme unequal distribution of wealth every day sparked something in me. I knew I wanted an international human rights-related career that would give me the tools to try to help address those kinds of inequities.
I went to law school with that general goal in mind, and during my first year, I became a research assistant for a professor doing international workers’ rights-related research. I researched the terrible health consequences suffered by Costa Rican banana workers who applied toxic pesticides, without proper safety protections, that were banned in the U.S. but legal in Costa Rica. That summer, while interning in Costa Rica, I took a weekend trip to a banana-producing region to interview such workers face to face. That’s when I started to fall in love with the field of international workers’ rights. I realized that unless workers are better protected and more empowered, we have little hope of ever successfully reducing the staggering global wealth gap.
Q: What are some of the biggest workers’ rights challenges facing Mexico and Honduras?
Carol: There are many challenges, but two are particularly important and universal. The first is limited resources. Across the world, labor ministries are notoriously under resourced, compared to other governmental agencies, even in the United States. Worldwide and across different political administrations, workers’ rights simply tend to be a low priority, which is, unfortunately, reflected in budget appropriations.
The other is that entrenched, powerful interests often benefit immensely from a status quo in which workers’ rights are regularly not respected. Their power and wealth may be threatened if workers have more of a voice, which makes them resist—and even actively oppose—such change.
Q: What is the most common public misconception around international labor issues?
Respecting workers’ rights does require some investment, of course, but it is definitely not beyond the financial reach of any employer—and certainly not any buyer—nor is it unfair or unreasonable to expect.
Carol: Sometimes people think that respecting workers’ rights is too costly for employers and will drive businesses to close, especially in developing countries. Workers’ fundamental human rights include the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining; the elimination of child labor, forced labor, and discrimination; and a safe and healthy workplace. I would argue that ensuring these rights actually does not require substantial resources. Instead, it primarily requires that employers—and their buyers, who monitor and enforce supply chain labor codes of conduct—understand workers’ legal rights, know and can adopt best practices for protecting them, and have the political will to do so. Respecting workers’ rights does require some investment, of course, but it is definitely not beyond the financial reach of any employer—and certainly not any buyer—nor is it unfair or unreasonable to expect.
Q: AIR’s labor technical assistance projects in Mexico and Honduras are designed to strengthen governmental capacity to effectively enforce labor laws, protect workers’ rights, and establish effective labor justice institutions. What kind of support does AIR provide to help meet these goals?
Carol: I think about our international labor technical assistance work as falling into four main, interconnected buckets of activities. The first is institution building and strengthening, such as developing organizational structures and design, organic statutes and internal regulations, job descriptions and roles, process maps and performance metrics, and strategic objectives. The second is technology systems development, with accompanying robust knowledge transfer, including electronic case management systems, employer databases, and data dashboards, among others. The third is legal assistance to develop new or strengthen existing legal instruments and procedures, like labor inspection tools and protocols. And the fourth is training, including substantive training on workers’ rights for a range of labor stakeholders and process and systems training for government officials that overlays the first three buckets. Our international workers’ rights expertise is interwoven throughout all activities, helping ensure they effectively advance our workers’ rights-related goals.
One example—just to ground this a bit—is our support for the development of the new, central electronic union registration platform in Mexico. Through the platform, all labor unions nationwide register their statutes, leadership slates, collective bargaining agreements, and other materials, and federal authorities confirm compliance with the new union democracy procedures. This work is not flashy, and it certainly doesn’t make an easy sound bite, but it is absolutely critical for Mexico’s successful implementation of the country’s labor justice reforms and for advancing workers’ rights to independent organizing and legitimate collective bargaining.
Q: Labor law and practice can vary widely across countries. How do you ensure that AIR’s projects reflect each country’s specific legal, political, economic, and cultural contexts?
Truly culturally competent project development and implementation is the only way that our international labor technical assistance can be effective and sustainable. It is at the very heart of our approach.
Carol: Labor laws do differ by country, but it is the different political, economic, and cultural contexts across countries that are the bigger challenge. Truly culturally competent project development and implementation is the only way that our international labor technical assistance can be effective and sustainable. It is at the very heart of our approach.
We partner AIR’s U.S.-based experts with amazing on-the-ground experts in discrete project areas, including workers’ rights, labor law enforcement, institution building, technology systems, data analysis, training, and project management. We create fully integrated implementation teams of U.S.-based and on-the-ground staff, with a shared vision and mission, based on relationships of trust and mutual respect. These teams work in close coordination and collaboration with our key in-country labor stakeholders. Through this approach, we ensure that our international labor technical assistance projects are always both sensitive and directly responsive to country-specific contexts.
Q: How does this work contribute to economic equity issues?
Carol: Few other areas of international development provide an opportunity to decrease the global wealth gap like the field of international workers’ rights. The unequal distribution of wealth is inextricably linked to the unequal distribution of power, and in my view, nowhere is the unequal distribution of power more evident than in the global workplace.
When you can help create a safe space for workers’ collective voices to be heard—all voices, including those of women and traditionally marginalized populations—without fear of retaliation, the workplace power gap can start to narrow. Through democratic organizing and collective bargaining, workers can begin to demand healthier, safer, fairer, and more equitable workplaces. And that can start chipping away at some of the entrenched power structures that perpetuate the wealth gap, which is an absolutely necessary, though certainly not sufficient, step towards ensuring more sustainable and inclusive global economic growth and development.