The International Lawyers Assisting Workers (ILAW) Network’s First Five Years

Jon Hiatt

Jon Hiatt is Co-Founder and Of Counsel to the ILAW Network, and was formerly General Counsel and Chief of Staff at the AFL-CIO.

Jeffrey Vogt

Jeffrey Vogt is the Rule of Law Director of the Solidarity Center and Co-Founder and Chair of the ILAW Network. He is also a member of the ILO Governing Body and of the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association.

For 40 years, union lawyers in the United States have enjoyed the benefit of a national membership organization that has provided opportunities for information sharing, collaboration, and joint strategizing, while assisting the unions and workers they represent. Various versions of this country’s Union Lawyers Association (ULA) exist in other countries and regions around the world. However, until the founding of the International Workers Assisting Workers (ILAW) Network in 2019, there was no network that attempted to unite all union and worker rights lawyers globally.

What started five years ago as a small community of labor rights lawyers and a website has now grown to a global network of over 1,200 lawyers in 92 countries; solidified institutional relationships with global, regional and national unions, worker rights NGOs, and national and regional bar associations; and deepened its impact as its collective capacity to confront the challenges facing workers and unions increases.

Headquartered at Solidarity Center in Washington DC, ILAW is guided by an Advisory Board of 22 lawyers from 22 countries, and a staff that includes 10 attorneys, five of whom are based in South America, Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe.

ILAW’s activities have expanded significantly in these first five years. To cite a few examples from this past year alone:

  • ILAW published articles from its members in its biannual law journal, the Global Labour Rights Reporter. The most recent issue focuses on promoting the rights of migrant workers. The forthcoming issue, on Forging a Feminist Labour Law, will be released soon.
  • Other major ILAW 2023 publications included Mapping Domestic Work and Employment Discrimination in Africa: A Study of Global and African Regional Human Rights Norms (informing ILAW’s litigation in support of domestic workers), and Fighting for Lives and Livelihoods: Workers, the Pandemic and the Law, (tracking legal responses by workers and unions to the COVID-19 pandemic).
  • ILAW continued to provide technical support to trade unions worldwide, including in Colombia (regarding labor law reforms), the Maldives (regarding first-time legislation on industrial relations and occupational safety and health), and Uganda.
  • The ILAW Strategic Litigation Fund provided financial grants to members to support new impact litigation in Bangladesh, Brazil, Ecuador, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Honduras, India, Lesotho, Kenya, Mexico, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Switzerland and Zimbabwe.
  • ILAW supported the Workers Group at the ILO in drafting new ILO conventions, on digital platforms and on global supply chains – each expected to inform future standard setting at the ILO and at national levels. To better understand how technology is impacting workers and unions, ILAW commissioned a detailed mapping of litigation and regulation of technology in the workplace, building on interviews with members across the world, to be released in early 2024. And, to better promote the right to strike, ILAW convened members and academics at the University of Bristol Law School to strategize on strengthening the right to strike.
  • ILAW held regional conferences for members from Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and South Asia to discuss the salient legal issues in their regions, and two national affiliate meetings in Brazil and Argentina. ILAW also collaborated on a Sub-Saharan Africa regional conference on law and technology in Tanzania.
  • With member participation, ILAW drafted two amicus briefs to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, one on the care economy (requested by the government of Argentina) and the other on the human rights impacts of climate change (requested by Chile and Colombia), to ensure that the labor rights dimensions will factor in the Court’s forthcoming decisions on the scope of Inter-American law on these subjects. In partnership with WIEGO, ILAW participated in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’  first regional thematic hearing on informal work, exposing working conditions on digital platforms in Latin America. ILAW also filed an amicus brief before the high court of Ecuador, about forced labor in a Japanese company,  two amicus briefs before the high court of Uganda, challenging the exclusion of workers in the informal economy from legal protection, and two  more  before the High Court of South Africa (parental leave), and the Republic of Georgia (freedom of association).
  • ILAW entered into a cooperative agreement with the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights to develop, in collaboration with ITUC-Africa and WIEGO, the labor rights jurisprudence of the African human rights system, including a General Comment on rights of workers in the informal economy under the African Charter.
  • ILAW’s “Future of Labor Law” database continues to expand its offerings on model legislation. Comparative research on labor outsourcing was conducted and model language will be posted shortly. The next topic for the platform will focus on combating pay inequity among marginalized workers.
  • ILAW continued to work with lawyers in four African countries – Nigeria, Ethiopia, Eswatini, and Zimbabwe – on a project that exemplifies ILAW’s goal of encouraging labor rights lawyers in different countries to draw from each other’s successes. On behalf of various unions and partner organizations, these attorneys are using a precedent-setting South African Constitutional Court case to challenge the exclusion of domestic workers from labor law protection and advance a jurisprudence of non-discrimination and equality in their own countries’ contexts.

2024 will be a consequential year, with the simultaneous impacts of technology and artificial intelligence, climate change, war and occupation, and spreading authoritarianism around the world posing enormous challenges to workers and unions, including those already in vulnerable situations. Simultaneously, there are important opportunities for building a more just, equitable and peaceful world through organized labor. The ILAW Network aspires to be an important legal resource to workers and unions as they confront these and other challenges. Looking ahead:

  • The ILAW Network, furthering its commitment to equality, will soon publish an in-depth report on obstacles to compliance with employment discrimination law – a collaboration with the UK-based Equal Rights Trust. It will conduct activities in select countries to launch the report and to strengthen employment discrimination laws and institutions to improve prevention and access to justice. Additionally, ILAW will begin a project creating model language and tools to assist unions in collective bargaining for gender equity.
  • The ITUC and ILAW will launch a new website focused on the right to strike, and, building on the Bristol convening, will publish a forthcoming book and a special issue of the ILO’s International Labour Review focusing on regulating the right to strike for the 21st Century. Further, ILAW will be supporting the ITUC’s legal team before the International Court of Justice to argue for the protection of the right to strike by ILO Convention 87.
  • ILAW will continue its work on labor law and technology in 2024 and start new work on a just transition law to promote collective bargaining over the impacts of climate on the world of work.

The 3rd ILAW Global Conference will take place this October, likely in Morocco, to build on the previous two global convenings (Mexico and Belgium), bringing together its members and other leaders, advocates, and academics to discuss the legal challenges facing workers and unions and to strategize on overcoming them collectively.

ILAW is proud of the membership participation in all of its activities, and what has been accomplished as a result. It is pleased to welcome new members into the network.

Enjoy OnLabor’s fresh takes on the day’s labor news, right in your inbox.