The Towsley Foundation hosted a discussion at the Ford School of Public Policy on “Integrating and Enforcing Labor Rights in Trade” with Bama Athreya, a visiting policy expert at the Weiser Diplomacy Center, and Sander Levin, former congressman and professor of practice at the Public Policy School. John Ciorciari, director of the International Policy Center, moderated the event. 

The event, held on Wednesday afternoon, focused on examining the connection between labor rights and trade. About 25 people attended, including students, faculty and staff. Athreya started the discussion by addressing the importance of labor movements in trade justice.

“This concentrated power that corporations have with respect to governance and rules really cannot be broken without the counterweight of organized labor movements,” Athreya said. “We have as much need today as we did then for labor movements to organize, be that voice and that weight to really think differently about the rules.” 

The conversation then moved to a discussion of enforceability as it relates to labor rights in trade deals, specifically in the Central America Free Trade Agreement. 

“We pay a very heavy price in CAFTA for the failure to have enforceable labor conditions,” Levin said. “In terms of other countries, I think you have to have a multilateral structure, contrary to the view of this administration, which wants to do everything unilaterally.” 

Levin brought up the challenges of enforceability again when talking about environmental regulation. 

“Hopefully the day will come when labor and environmental standards are internationally enforced things because otherwise, companies move,” Levin said.

Athreya echoed Levin’s discussion of challenges of enforceability, adding that defining enforceability is difficult. 

“I don’t think there is a fixed answer to at what point you consider something fully enforceable,” Athreya said. “Even the earliest labor clauses … were enforceable but were not enforced.” 

Athreya spoke of trade deals as the instruments for labor rights change but emphasized the need for more action to make change happen. 

“As advocates, we were always very tactical about the use of these instruments,” Athreya said. “The case itself wasn’t going to solve the problem. It was very important for other actors to come in and say here are some things, some practical things, that can be done.” 

Athreya pushed back on the premise that trade regulation is a counterforce to free trade and globalization. Rather, she said the regulation was there to protect workers. 

“It was about fair rules, rules that actually protected people and not just profit,” Athreya said. “The rules are not the ends, the rules are the means. We can use the rules so that workers, as they begin to organize, have something to use as leverage to support their efforts to make those demands.” 

The conversation ended with Levin emphasizing the role that trade regulation plays in creating a free labor market that allows for opportunity.

“We should be proud of what’s happened in this country that helped to create the middle class,” Athreya said. “The freedom to organize, in simple terms, helped make the middle class of this country. We should be damn proud of it, and proud to incorporate it in a realistic way.” 

Public Policy graduate student Cristian Casanova found that the discussion offered behind-the-scenes insight into the crafting of trade deals. 

“The event had a lot of thoughtful questions about what does go into a trade agreement in terms of labor and how labor rights are protected,” Casanova said. 

Casanova noted Athreya’s response to a question about the relationship between artificial intelligence and labor rights as particularly interesting. 

“She obviously had a lot to say about that,” Casanova said. “I think predictive analytics will be a major role within really enforcing those labor rights. So I think that was really great, I think that was a good conversation.”

Contributor John Grieve can be reached at

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