Terry Collingsworth traces his interest in workers’ rights to the five years he spent operating a crane in a Cleveland copper mill during the 1970s.
Fighting for the rights of workers around the globe became his life’s work when, as a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, he received a grant to look at working conditions in some American-owned factories in Asia. He found them deplorable. He saw workers crowded into unsafe buildings and working amid filth. As a rule, their payment depended on daily quotas that were impossible to make.
“I began looking for a solution to the problems I saw. Something needed to change,” says Collingsworth, who joined Conrad & Scherer’s Washington D.C. office in 2008 and now serves as managing partner while continuing his longtime service as executive director and general counsel of the nonprofit International Rights Advocates. “The ultimate goal is to have an international regime which regulates what these companies do.”
Representing workers overseas and fighting for their human rights means negotiating numerous hurdles, he explains. “There are a lot of challenges, including the issue of trust. For example, when I first started practicing, the Cold War was still going on. So there were still anti-American sentiments and people were suspicious of an American wanting to help. So gaining trust was an important challenge, as this line of work requires close working relationships.
“And there’s always a challenge with resources. In my work, I am going against multinational corporations that have lots of resources,” he says.
Collingsworth has constructed many cases around the Alien Tort Statute, which allows U.S. courts to hear human-rights cases brought by foreign citizens for conduct committed outside the United States. In Roe v. Unocal, which took nearly a decade to litigate, he represented a group of Burmese plaintiffs who brought multiple claims relating to their construction of a gas line, including forced labor and wrongful death. Ultimately, the case was settled, paving the way for a system which provided compensation for victims.
“There’s a challenge with using the Alien Tort Statute because it’s only sixteen words long and was written in 1789,” says Collingsworth, who has also initiated cases against Coca-Cola, ExxonMobil, Drummond Coal, Chiquita and Wal-Mart, among other prominent multinational corporations. “You need to have three elements – an alien plaintiff, a violation of the laws of nation, and a tort. Early on, it was only used for dictators and war crimes. But that is changing, though there’s a lack of certainty working with it because there’s a lot of ambiguity with the act.”
With the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, plaintiffs may face new challenges when it comes to Alien Tort claims; the Court held that a strong connection to the United States is required for a claim to be successful. But Collingsworth seems unfazed by the ruling.
“The key to the decision is that this was absolutely not an across-the-board holding that the ATS never applies extraterritorially,” he says. “The ATS cases that we are working on in my practice mostly involve U.S. companies that engaged in substantial conduct here in the U.S., in sharp contrast with the facts of Kiobel.”
Collingsworth’s career has taken him around the world. Though his work is exhausting and constantly pits him against some of world’s biggest corporations, there’s nowhere he would rather be than lending a hand to those in need.
“Every day I feel blessed that I’m able to use the law in a positive way,” he says.
“I get to work for the good of humans. When I talk to law students, I tell them not to give up, because a lot of them think that once they graduate they can only work in a life of corporate drudgery. There are so many challenges in the world that can be solved just by using the law, from environmental issues to economic problems. It feels really good to wake up every day and then go out and help people.”