The Biden administration plans to name Thea Lee, a former AFL-CIO trade official, to head the Labor Department’s international affairs division, according to people familiar with the appointment.
Lee, who most recently served as president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank that often critiques free trade policies, is slated to become the deputy undersecretary for international labor affairs. In that job, she will oversee the bureau that investigates labor rights, forced labor and child trafficking around the globe.
Spokesmen for the Labor Department didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
The appointment will give Lee a role in enforcing the labor rights provisions of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, negotiated under the Trump administration to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement.
She also will have a say in how the U.S. deals with allegations of forced labor in the textile, solar and agriculture industries in China’s western Xinjiang region. The U.S. has barred cotton imports from some companies that do business in Xinjiang. Activists are pushing for a similar ban on solar panel imports that contain raw materials mined in the region.
The Xinjiang region is featured prominently on the website of the bureau of international labor affairs under the heading "Against Their Will: The Situation in Xinjiang." Gloves, hair products, textiles, yarn and tomato products were added this past year to the agency’s list of products made by forced labor or child labor.
Lee is a close friend of U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, who as a Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill pushed to strengthen the labor rights sections of USMCA. Tai has said that her office is undertaking a review of its China policies.
Lee spent 20 years at the AFL-CIO, including stints as its main trade official at a time when Washington was pursuing trade policies that included negotiating Nafta and shepherding China into the World Trade Organization. The AFL-CIO opposed those deals, arguing that they undermined labor rights and wages at home. She became deputy chief of staff at the labor organization before running EPI since 2017.