Leader interview

Nancy Leppink, International Labour Organization

The head of the OSH section at the UN’s labour agency talks about helping make the regulatory weather worldwide. 

Image credits: Guillaume Mégevand

In 2009 Nancy Leppink was appointed by President Obama to the Wage and Hour Division of the US Department of Labor. Her job as acting administrator was to help revivify the regulatory agency responsible for enforcing national labour standards including the minimum wage, child labour restrictions and statutory working time limits which had been almost dismantled under the previous administration.

But for Leppink it was also a chance to put into practice a belief built up after 25 years enforcing labour and civil rights law at state level that regulators were suffering from a lack of joined-up government.

“What I had learned over time was that you could be a really efficient enforcement agency and have no impact on compliance at all,” she says. “After spending a lot of my career trying to improve the laws and raise sanctions and shift burdens of proof it became clear that the enforcement toolbox was limited.

“You have the authority to inspect, to sanction, to levy penalties, in OSH maybe to shut down a process. The penalties are too small or too big or they are never collected, or the countervailing forces are more powerful than anything the labour inspectorate can do.”

Nancy Leppink career file

2014-present, Chief of Labadmin/OSH in the ILO’s Governance and Tripartism Department
2009-2014, Administrator, Wage and Hour Division, US Department of Labor
1999-2009, Chief general counsel, Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry
1985-1999, Assistant attorney general, state of Minnesota

She set out to shift the emphasis from improving back-end penalties to the more fundamental aim of ensuring employers complied with the laws in the first place.

Shifting the focus to why businesses do or don’t obey the law suggested new levers to encourage compliance, she says – ones that involved other agencies.

“You could see other parts of government lining up and doing things that made your job harder and harder and then when it came to non-compliance they looked at you and said, ‘Fix it with your sanctions’.”

She offers the example of the bodies responsible for licensing childcare providers. Unless she lobbied the licensing authority, repeated infringements of the minimum wage would be no barrier to gaining permission to operate.

Another lever of what Leppink calls the “strategic compliance” methodology was persuading consumer organisations which rate the quality of childcare services to factor compliance records into their scores.

“As a parent I would want to know my children were being looked after by someone who was being paid the minimum wage and fairly treated by their employer,” she says.

This approach, which shifts the enforcers away from reactive, punitive work towards influencing good behaviour, is partly what the International Labour Organization (ILO), a specialised United Nations agency, hoped to harness when it appointed Leppink in 2014 to her present role of chief of its Labour Administration, Labour Inspection and Occupational Safety and Health (Labadmin/OSH) Branch.

No same-old

The ILO brings together governments, employers and workers of 187 member states, to set labour standards conventions, develop policies and devise programmes promoting decent work.

The ILO’s conventions, when ratified, are legally binding treaties that set standards covering most aspects of work, from minimum working ages to unfair dismissal. The Labadmin/OSH branch (see "In the scheme of things" box above) provides expert advice and technical assistance to help governments meet their commitments to minimum safety and health standards. But the branch also supports states in developing their regulatory and enforcement capabilities – the Labadmin part of the name.

“When I first arrived at the ILO it had done a lot of assessing of labour inspectorates and training of inspectors but it followed a very traditional model of checklists and issuing penalties and I had learned that doesn’t work well,” says Leppink. “Labour inspectorates in many countries were confronted with the same challenges that the Wage and Hour Division faced in the US.”

She gives the example of a country which had privatised its mining industry: “The ministry responsible for privatisation had decided to give five-year leases to investors, who would hire an operating company who would then engage subcontracted workers. What kind of investment is an investor going to make in occupational safety and health in a mine when they only have a five-year lease?”

What’s more, she says, there were no prequalification requirements for lessees to take on reputable, safe operators.

In the scheme of things

Nancy Leppink is head of the Labadmin/OSH Branch of the International Labour Organization (ILO). The branch is responsible for developing and promoting standards on OSH and labour administration and inspection.
“We are basically a technical branch, so when, for example, the standards review committee recommends to the governing body we need an ergonomics standard, my branch is tasked with providing the technical support to the standards department to develop it.”
The branch also guides policy orientation and develops resources, training material and guidance and technical support to the ILO’s field offices worldwide and sometimes becomes directly involved in field projects.
Leppink reports to the director of the ILO’s Governance and Tripartism Department who, in turn, reports to the deputy director general for policy. She explains that departments group together units and branches whose work is seen as complementary, so the Governance and Tripartism Department comprises the units covering social dialogue, labour laws, fundamental principles and rights at work and the Better Work programme, as well as her own branch.
In a reorganisation in 2014 the labour inspection unit and the safe work branch were combined into the single Labadmin/OSH function she now heads.
The team leads for labour inspection and for OSH report to her, as do the knowledge and networking and developmental co-operation leads and the chief technical advisers for OSH Global Action on Prevention development and co-operation projects and the programme manager for the Vision Zero fund to promote accident reduction worldwide.
The whole branch comprises 32 people, mostly OSH specialists, labour inspection staff and administrators.
“There’s a very heavy business process in the ILO, so I spend a significant amount of my time on human resources and contracts and budgets,” she says.

“When the [ILO] country office comes to us and says, ‘We want to put together a project to improve mine safety here’, I now say, ‘Before we throw the ‘same-old same-old’ at that problem, how about we look at the business model to find the OSH vulnerabilities and the incentives and disincentives for compliance?’ Then we can do a much more responsive project.”

Her branch has developed a strategic compliance planning workshop for labour inspectorates that helps them define the limits of their mandate, diagnose the causes of non-compliance and tailor inspection and intervention plans to suit their priorities.

“It’s operationalising these inspectorates, positioning them to act,” she says. “Once you know how to use it, it doesn’t require someone from the ILO [to lead it].”

The workshops have been piloted in Cambodia, Chile, Colombia and Lesotho.

“It’s also embedded in the overarching strategy we developed for Ethiopia,” she says. “So far the reception is really positive. Originally I thought it might be something only mature labour inspectorates would be able to use but I’m finding it actually compensates for a lack of resources because you create a strategy with what you’ve got and with what you can leverage from others in both the public and private sectors.”

Strategic compliance is being embraced by “transformational” inspectorates, she says, including the Health and Safety Executive in Britain and those in Australia, New Zealand and Portugal who are trying to extract maximum value from their funding.

Her vision is that by gathering these regulators in a “community of practice”, encouraging them to share their best ideas and introducing them to experts in other areas from “big data” analysis to anti-smoking campaigns, they will generate even more efficient means of securing compliance.

“There’s significant interest,” she says, “and the idea is we will map out a gameplan for this coming year.”

State intervention

The inspiration for strategic compliance techniques came early in Leppink’s career, after she began practising law in the mid-1980s.

“Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, issues related to sex discrimination were front and centre in the United States, and I had a fair amount of personal experience,” she says. “So my interest in going to law school was to work in general in civil rights but particularly in women’s rights and sexual harassment.”

At the time, civil rights enforcement was primarily the responsibility of government agencies, she says, “so that’s where I started”. She worked in the state of Minnesota’s attorney general’s office prosecuting race and sex discrimination cases.

“I realised, by the time cases got to me, so many mistakes had usually been made by the government agencies,” she says. “If they had done their job better, [those cases] would never have landed on my desk. That was a disservice to the citizens who were seeking the government’s assistance.

“I became more and more interested in helping the agencies whose cases I litigated in improving their capability to perform their work.”

She carried on that interest after moving to another part of the attorney general’s office dealing with labour law. That led her, via the post of chief legal counsel to Minnesota’s Department of Labor and Industry, to the national job with the Wage and Hour Division, where she oversaw the recruitment of 300 inspectors as well as transformed the agency’s way of thinking about achieving compliance.

Branch and root

The Labadmin/OSH branch oversees projects that range from the highest level co-ordination of countries to improve OSH regulation and enforcement – such as the regulatory community of practice Leppink hopes to convene – to country-based programmes aimed directly at raising standards.

Another of the overarching programmes she is working on is a “global OSH coalition”, proposed recently by the Finnish minister of social affairs and health and endorsed by the ILO’s director general. The coalition will bring together representatives of the ministries and institutes with responsibility for safety and health.

“It will be very much task-oriented to work on progressing the commitments made by the G20 or the EU or the African Union or most importantly the [UN’s]sustainable development goals,” says Leppink. “We are trying not to make it an unwieldy entity but one where we can bring together key experts and organisations to focus on assignments where there should be a global focus of attention.”

The ILO works to support the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by UN member states in 2015. The goals include ones directly applicable to Labadmin/OSH, committing countries to achieve “good health and wellbeing” and “decent work and economic growth”.

“Whenever we are developing projects, whether with developmental co-operation funding or with ILO funds, we have been asked to keep in mind the SDGs but also to articulate which of the goals our various activities are intended to support.”

Under goal 8.8, which commits nations to “protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment”, one of the performance indicators is frequency rates of work fatalities and injuries.

Chains that bind

The ILO recently reported on an EU-sponsored research project on safety and health in global supply chains (bit.ly/2BxjdAo). The study, carried out by ILO’s Geneva-based and in-country staff, covered three agro-food chains: coffee from Colombia, lychees from Madagascar and palm oil from Indonesia. It traced the products from the small family growers and industrial plantations and processing and packing operations in the countries of origin, through shippers, wholesalers and retailers to the western consumers’ kitchens.
“In addition to mapping the chains it identified the vulnerabilities in those supply chains that had an impact on safety and health,” says Nancy Leppink, “and which were the potential actors who could influence improvement.”
One vulnerability was created by a bonus system to incentivise production in the palm oil plantations that led to labourers bringing their wives and children in to work at the month-end to meet targets.
Others included lack of personal protection equipment, pesticide exposure and even the risk of snake bites, among the small growers and seasonal workers in farming and processing.
The report recommends many ways to reduce accident and illness, from outreach OSH support by some of the larger, better-resourced supply chain links to the rural farmers and smallholders, to hazard awareness messages on phone apps.
Beyond the local lessons, the methodology that was developed can now be used for other mapping and improvement projects. “We have all been operating with a lot of assumptions and anecdotal experiences of global supply chains,” says Leppink, “but this is a very bottom to very top assessment of these chains; it’s exciting.”

The problem was that there was no reliable global data for these rates. The ILO has already made some strides in this area working with the OSH agencies from Finland and Singapore to create the estimate of 2.78 million annual work-related deaths that was released at the recent World Congress on Safety and Health (bit.ly/2wXUXGF). But the estimates are just that, informed guesses, especially for many countries in Asia.

Now Labadmin/OSH is building accident and ill-health reporting and recording into its work with national governments and the 2018 ILO campaign for the World Day for Safety and Health at Work which focuses on improving national notification and recording systems for occupational injuries and diseases.

“We are very much working to support the capacity of countries to report on that [SDG] indicator,” Leppink says. “Many of them currently can’t because they don’t have a system at all or they have one with a very low confidence level.”

GAP analysis

I ask her what she sees as the branch’s most important work. “That’s a hard question because my bias has always been to value impact on the ground,” she says. “But after being at the ILO three years I have a growing sense of the influence of the international labour standards in particular, though it’s often hard to document.”

There are eight fundamental ILO standards, which seek to end child labour, forced labour and discrimination at work and guarantee freedom of association and collective bargaining. Others cover issues such as working hours and safe and healthy working conditions.

Leppink says the standards have a positive impact on national policy, even in countries which have ratified only a few conventions.

Many of the programmes she supervises, such as the Safe Youth@Work project and the OSH in Global Supply Chains project, contribute to the ILO’s flagship programme OSH Global Action for Prevention (GAP), which aims to improve national OSH systems and OSH performance among SMEs in the agriculture and construction sectors by supporting practitioners and governments.

The ILO Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention (no 187), promulgated in 2006 and ratified by 43 countries from Albania to Zambia, commits signatories to adopt national systems and programmes to encourage safe and healthy work.

“We were finding countries could get their minds around a national OSH policy but once they got to a national system, progress slowed,” says Leppink.

There are many facets to a national system: laws, social dialogue between government, employers’ bodies and unions, data collection and enforcement, “which is quite daunting. So we realised we had to up our game in helping countries stand up their national OSH systems.”

Other parts of the ILO such as the units dealing with social protection had created assessment processes and tools to determine a country’s status, needs and opportunities. The OSH programme did not, she says.

The branch staff analysed the fundamentals of what any nation needs to do to reduce national work-related accident and illness rates and the resources that those improvements demand.

They drew up a core list of ten “capacities” any country needs to improve, including employment injury insurance, OSH data and notification systems.

“Now we are working on the assessment process and tools for those capacities,” she says.

Model statute

Another initiative to help countries that ratify Convention 187 involves the branch drawing up an annotated outline of a comprehensive safety and health law with the key components and explanations of who is protected and enforcement mechanisms and remedies.

“About once a month we receive a request from a country saying, ‘We have revised our 1946 factory law, please review it’,” she says. “But it’s difficult at that point. So what we want to do is equip our field officers with a template that embeds some of the more progressive practices such as requirements on safety committees or OSH management systems, so laws are not just prescribing exposure limits and requiring machine guarding but countries are now enacting laws dictating behaviour that strongly correlates with OSH improvements.”

I’ve matured over time to recognise that there is always more than one solution

Completing the assessment template will tell a country whether its safety and health law is out of date. “And then we have good tools to provide the assistance that’s needed to update it.”

Many ILO projects are funded directly by individual country donors such as the US or Norway, based on their aid priorities. Often the parameters of a project are prescribed by the donor. “It is a navigation between where ILO thinks it has the opportunity for impact and the donor’s priorities. Often the donor has a lot to say about the scope of the projects or the countries they will operate in.”

A case in point is the recent global supply chains project that was jointly funded by the European Commission (see "Chains that bind" box above). Another is the Safe Youth@Work project, sponsored by the US Department of Labor, to help educate and engage workers aged 15 to 24. Pilots in Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam are teaching young workers hazard recognition and employment rights and simultaneously working with the governments, unions and employer bodies to improve information and protection standards for young workers.

“The US was very interested,” she explains. “They had focused on child labour for a long time and they were looking at how to expand their focus, looking at the transition from school to work and the vulnerabilities of young workers.”

Safe Youth@Work also provides an example of how ILO projects evolve beyond their original parameters. The ILO arranged for 125 “youth champions” from around the world to attend a youth summit that was part of the world safety and health congress in Singapore in September to talk to delegates about their experiences and views on work and OSH.

“The idea of giving this demographic a voice, seeding this kind of advocacy around the world, having them more integrated into policy-making, building stronger relationships, is important,” she says, noting with approval that IOSH has launched its own mentoring programme to support newer practitioners.

She ensures she visits at least some of the local projects to see the effects of the branch’s work supporting the ILO’s in-country teams.

Does she value those visits? “I do. I would love to find an opportunity to lead a project in a country for six months or a year because this is the furthest away from the action that I’ve ever been. I think it would be really good for me. You learn so much by living it that you can’t get any other way. I think I would benefit a lot in how I think about strategies and resources … I haven’t told my bosses about this!”

Enduring need

The ILO and its parent body are part of the ambitious supranational infrastructures started after the first world war and bolstered after the second, which include the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. They were intended by the victorious nations to ensure a more politically stable and peaceable world order.

Now the US, which was the prime mover for these world institutions and which remains their biggest funder, is adopting a less outward-looking stance and there are arguments in many countries about whether looking after their own citizens should take a greater priority over – and funding from – overseas aid.

I suggest the bulwarks of internationalism such as the ILO should better publicise their work at such a time to show their value.

“I would say more that, to the extent that we may have taken for granted these key ideas of social justice and the importance of the ILO international labour standards and how they contribute to equality, stability and peace, it may mean we have to revisit and reinforce and possibly articulate that in a more globalised world,” she says.

“I think they are as relevant today and perhaps more relevant but in a new context.”

On a more prosaic note I ask whether it was an easy transition four years ago from the US to the ILO’s Swiss headquarters, her first job outside her home country.

“You don’t recognise how much you take for granted [at home],” she says. “You know where to get a driver’s licence. You know how to rent an apartment. [In a new country] you have to learn those things all over again. I was taking pictures of things and using Google Translate just to know what point on the dial of my washing machine I should be turning it to. It’s quite humbling.”

Overcoming such unfamiliarity from a privileged position made her empathise with refugees and migrant workers who have the same obstacles and more but without the smoothing effect of financial resources. “There’s nothing like personal experience to make you realise what many people in the world face,” she says.

I ask what she has learned about leadership.

“To always be the most prepared person in the room,” she says. “And to have a generosity of spirit. Ideally [you should] make everyone feel valued. It takes time to communicate effectively and to listen to their grievances and the positive things they have to say but it is time well invested.

“I think I’ve matured over time to recognise that there is always more than one solution. And even if it’s not necessarily the one you would have selected, the engagement of others in finding and achieving it often reaps a lot of benefits in making the solution sustainable and empowering those people.”

What is she most proud of in her career so far? She points to her work in changing the Wage and Hour Division. “I had to bring everything I had learned, everything I had experienced to the table almost every day. We were doing something that no one had ever done. With a great team we managed to resurrect an agency and to make it a leader in the US government and the world in pursuing an objective.” During her four years with the agency it collected more for workers from underpaying employers than it had ever done.

“I went to a retirement party for one of the staff shortly after I left and one of the district directors came up to me and said, ‘You know, Nancy, when you started I thought you were crazy and what you were suggesting would never work. But this past week because of the strategies we put in place I have achieved an outcome for the minimum wage workers of a franchise restaurant I would never have thought possible’.”



Louis Wustemann is former editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.

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