Virginia Leary

Interview for the Oral Archives of the ILO Century Project by Anne Trebilcock

Virginia Leary was born in 1926 and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. An early women's rights advocate, she was one of the first women to attend the University of Chicago Law School, which she graduated from in 1950. Upon graduation, she practised law for several years at Sidley Austin, a Chicago law firm where she experienced the challenges of a being a young woman employee in a conservative, male-dominated work environment.

Leary then went on to work for the NGO International Cooperation Association for nearly 16 years. Her position with International Cooperation Association was one that allowed her to travel, all over the world. Her last duty station was Geneva, where she decided to enrol at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in the emerging field of human rights. In 1972 she started working at the ILO in the International Labour Standards Department, where she dealt with forced labour issues in the late 1960s and early 1970s. From the ILO she joined the Faculty of Law at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1976 and founded its Human Rights Centre, which granted her the title of SUNY Distinguished Service Professor. Following her retirement from the University of Buffalo in 1995, she served as the Alfred and Hanna Fromm Chair in International and Comparative law at the University of California Hastings College of Law in San Francisco for six years.

In addition to her scholarship, she held membership on numerous boards and worked with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the International Commission of Jurists. After her retirement, she co-led a research project on social aspects, of trade liberalization at the Graduate Institute in Geneva which produced the influential book, Social Issues, Globalization and International Institutions.

An inspiration for many students, scholars and international officials, Virginia Leary was instrumental in advancing labour rights as human rights and encouraging inclusion of the perspectives of developing the countries in this field. She was a prolific scholar on a broad range of issues, including labour law, workers’ rights, the right to health, child labour issues, and international trade and human rights.

Bachelor of the Arts, University of Utah, USA
University of Chicago Law School, Chicago, USA
Diploma of the Hague Academy of International Law, The Hague, Netherlands
Human Rights, Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, Switzerland
PhD, Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, Switzerland

Virginia Leary’s interview covers her service as a junior ILO employee, her human rights activities, and her experiences entering the legal profession in the 1950s when very few women practised law in the United States. An ardent supporter of the ILO’s mission, she offers opinions about the Organization’s successes as well as its continuing challenges. Virginia Leary discusses ILO’s involvement with the labour standards in Poland, Burma, now the Union of Myanmar, and Cambodia. ILO’s Better Factories Programme, initiated in Cambodia in 2001, attracted the interest of the World Bank and of the International Finance Corporation which began working with the ILO in Vietnam, Jordan, Indonesia, Nicaragua and Lesotho. She highlights ILO’s unique involvement with civil society, namely the possibilities created by the ILO for the civil society groups to participate in its work − an original feat for an international organization at the time. Virginia Leary comments on ILO declarations and conventions; the role of human rights groups and their relation with the ILO and trade unions; the transformation of the forced labour concept and the attention given to the vulnerable groups including women, children, minorities and indigenous people; involvement of academia with the ILO and world of work issues; and lastly, the prospects for more coherent cooperation with multinational enterprises and multilateral agencies.

Key words
Child labour, Decent Work, forced labour, freedom of association, human rights (groups), ILO ideology and principles, International Finance Corporation (IFC), international labour law, labour rights, multinational enterprises (MNE), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), “priority” conventions, right to health, social justice, social insurance, supervisory system, technical assistance, technical examination of standards, tripartism, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), United States of America (USA), World Bank (WB).

Names mentioned
Alston, Philip; Charnovitz, Steve; Harvey, Ros; Jenks, C. Wilfred; Kellerson, Hilary; Kern, Max; Samson, Klaus; Langille, Brian; Morgenstern, Felice; Valticos, Nicolas; Vardopoulous, Maria; Voskuil, Annan.

Should you wish to obtain the full transcript of this authorized oral interview or quote from it, you can obtain permission by contacting The views expressed are those of the interviewee, and the inclusion of the interview and/or its transcript, either partly or in full, on the ILO Century Project website does not constitute an endorsement of their contents by the ILO.