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Vietnamese Labor Leaders Oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership

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Of all the conversations around the global race to the bottom, I think the one that bugs me the both is the portrayal of these low-wage, dangerous jobs as gifts American corporations are giving to these poor people around the world who would have nothing without our beneficent overlords. This is a paternalistic, colonialist argument that does not take actual workers and their desires into account. Rather, what we need to do in wealthy world nations is to support the workers’ movements of developing world nations so that they can live dignified lives in this system of global production.

This principle provides us another reason to oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership as Vietnamese labor leaders urge Congress to reject it.
They do so because they claim the TPP will destroy their attempts to fight for better lives.

The House is expected to vote Friday on a bill that would grant Obama so-called “fast-track” authority, which would prevent Congress from amending or filibustering any trade pact he negotiates. Obama cannot pass his trade agenda without fast-track powers. U.S. labor unions are concerned that the pact will drive down domestic wages by forcing American workers to compete with low wages and abusive practices abroad. Obama and Republican leaders say the pact will benefit all parties involved by boosting economic growth. The vast majority of Democrats in Congress are opposed to both TPP and the fast-track bill.

In their letter, labor leaders in Vietnam noted that many American companies profit from the exploitation of Vietnamese workers, singling out Nike, which operates factories in the country. In May, Obama made a pitch for the TPP deal from a Nike facility in Oregon. The labor leaders also sent lawmakers a separate study on Nike’s practices in Vietnam, detailing poverty wages paid to workers that forced them to borrow money to cover basic expenses. Nike was not immediately available for comment.

“In order for human and labor rights that are clearly spelled out in UN Conventions and in the Vietnamese Constitution to be truly respected in Vietnam, we believe that the U.S. Congress must use the opportunity of granting fast track authority as leverage to make immediate transformative changes so that the citizens of Vietnam can enjoy their human rights and basic freedoms,” the letter reads.

“Immediate and transformative changes.” Yes. They have a lot of specific demands that range from higher wages to the freeing of imprisoned leaders. I would also suggest the creation of labor standards the U.S. demands for any products coming from nations in the TPP with real enforcement mechanisms. It should also allow workers to bring suit against American companies for the violations of these standards, including if contractors are the actual employer. The workers of Vietnam do indeed deserve human rights and basic freedoms.

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  • cpinva

    the two primary reasons American companies choose to outsource jobs:

    1. cheaper labor costs with virtually no governmental labor protections. you get near slave labor, without the nuisance of having to, at minimum, keep the slaves alive. in some countries, if labor has the nerve to complain about wages and/or conditions, the national/local government will be glad to step in and subjugate them.

    2. either no environmental regulation at all, or environmental regulation that’s rarely, if ever, enforced.

    a libertarian paradise. that we’re not allowed to see what’s actually in the agreement tells me that it shouldn’t be passed. I’m glad the Vietnamese labor leaders are speaking out against it, maybe that will give the labor leaders in other outsourcing countries the courage to speak out as well.

    did I mention graft and corruption? I didn’t? silly me! many of the outsourced country’s governments, national & local, will happily do the bidding of American corporations, whether it’s keeping workers in their place, or turning two blind eyes to environmental depradations, for a small fee. I’d call it bribes, but that’s such a harsh term. it shows up on tax returns as consulting fees, “other costs” in cost of goods sold, miscellaneous expenses, etc. for the companies, it’s just part of the cost of doing business. considering the gross profit margins these companies are enjoying, they’re happy to pay it.

    ok, getting off my soapbox now.

    • DrDick

      Exactly. All trade agreements should contain enforcible labor and environmental protections, with severe penalties for violators.

    • Ahuitzotl

      considering the gross profit margins these companies are enjoying, they’re happy often surprisingly reluctant to continue to pay it

      because greed really has no more brains than it has conscience, I think.

      • cpinva

        true enough. however, given the obvious alternative, they pay it with a smile on their face, and inflated, fully diluted earnings per share.

        going to stop now, I could easily go on for hours about this.

  • liberal

    It should also allow workers to bring suit against American companies for the violations of these standards, including if contractors are the actual employer.

    Screw the lawsuit stuff. There should be a board of arbitrators, staffed by plaintiff labor lawyers, and the outcome should not be subject to appeal by any court in any nation. “Investors” get such a board, right? So why not workers? Maybe we should do the same for environmentalists.

    Prompted by a DailyKos email I called my rep last night, who’s on record as opposing Fast Track. The person who answered the phone was a little snippy: “But Representative __ opposes Fast Track.” “I know, but I’m asking him/her to vote against it when it next comes to the floor.”

    • Brett

      It wouldn’t be impossible. The existing ISDS process already seems like it could be extended to environmental and labor standards – just allow said groups to bring suits against the countries hosting violations, like with investors. They both have to agree on the arbitrators on the panel hearing the case, so it wouldn’t be particularly prone to capture.

  • KadeKo

    “Vietnamese labor leaders” is a phrase I’m grateful to see.

    If only because some years ago I heard an international report which said that “Company X was violating Chinese labor laws”, and I thought “China has labor laws? And, someone in China is enforcing them?”

    Progress, in fits and starts, but progress.

    • liberal

      I thought the question was, “China has laws? And someone is enforcing them?”

      Some article in some US magazine (NYorker or Atlantic or something) talked about the case of some Turkish guy or something who would buy used construction cranes and resell them. His business was ruined because he bought such a crane in China, but the guys who sold it to him switched cranes to some damaged POS before it got loaded onto the ship, so his buyer refused to pay him, and he was out of the money he paid the Chinese seller. He tried going to the Chinese authorities, and they just ignored him.

      Of course, to be fair, there are all sorts of laws here that favored people and organizations are allowed to break all the time.

      • KadeKo

        But the guys who sold it to him switched cranes to some damaged POS before it got loaded onto the ship…

        Wait, eBay sells construction cranes in Asia?

        (Okay, I think that was a joke about eBay automobile scamming. However, your last bit rings true.)

      • Hogan

        “This is a British murder investigation, and some degree of justice must be seen to have been more or less done!”

    • cpinva

      “China has labor laws? And, someone in China is enforcing them?”

      they do and they do, depending. if the violation results in either bad publicity or a drop in revenues, someone could well end up on the wrong end of a .38, in the back of their head. on the other hand, if it just results in some poor Chinese schmoes being injured or killed, with little to no public awareness, and little to no affect on revenues, oh well, shit happens.

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  • Phil Perspective

    Congratulations on joining the Firebaggers, Erik!!

    • liberal

      Heh.

  • dilan

    1. This is 1 group of people in 1 country. Yet within 1 post, Erik turns it into the consensus of third world labor movements.

    2. I suspect full employment is probably bad for third world labor organizing efforts. But that’s not the same thing as it being bad for workers.

    The argument isn’t that these jobs are a corporate “gift”. It’s that agrarian life in the third world really sucks and these jobs improve a lot of people’s material lives. There’s a reason that every country that ever had an industrial revolution saw thousands of people swoop in to take factory jobs despite appalling conditions.

    Erik’s position, in the end, is to maintain the noble savages as savages while the richer white unionized workers keep their factories. That’s not sustainable, and a lot of people in a lot of countries are less poor because of the jobs exodus. Eventually, working conditions do improve, but you need the jobs to come first. Japan, or the US, is the model.

    • Lurking Canadian

      That’s a good argument for low wages, especially if the countries in question also have low costs of living.

      It’s a really, really bad argument for unsafe working conditions and throwing union organizers out of helicopters.

    • Linnaeus

      The argument isn’t that these jobs are a corporate “gift”. It’s that agrarian life in the third world really sucks and these jobs improve a lot of people’s material lives. There’s a reason that every country that ever had an industrial revolution saw thousands of people swoop in to take factory jobs despite appalling conditions.

      If people are given a choice between a bad and less bad option (as they perceive it), they’ll take the less bad option. But that raises in my mind two questions: 1) why should the options be thus limited? and 2) why not make the less bad option better?

      Erik’s position, in the end, is to maintain the noble savages as savages while the richer white unionized workers keep their factories. That’s not sustainable, and a lot of people in a lot of countries are less poor because of the jobs exodus. Eventually, working conditions do improve, but you need the jobs to come first. Japan, or the US, is the model.

      This strikes me as a more sophisticated omelets-and-eggs argument. We are to accept that the justifiable cost of shifting jobs includes deindustrialized communities (left to their own devices) and poor, even dangerous working conditions. Often these costs are spoken of abstractly, because “yes, collapsing buildings in Bangladesh is the price we must pay for progress” comes off rather badly.

      If and when working conditions improve, let’s also not leave out the agency required for that to happen – they don’t just improve by some sort of natural progression, they improve because people agitate for improvement, against the powerful opposition of those who do not want to improve those conditions.

    • Lost Left Coaster

      What’s missing:

      1) Trade liberalization is killing small-scale farmers around the world. The Mexican assembly plant industry that took off with NAFTA depended on rural labor that was put out of business by the USA’s subsidized corn. In general, small-scale farmers simply cannot compete with big industrialized agriculture, which gets subsidies, has political connections, etc.

      2) Environmental degradation, water pollution, climate change, groundwater depletion, and the growth of industrialized farming are pushing small-scale farmers off of their land.

      My point being, of course, that the global alienation of the small-scale farmer from the land is a matter of policy, unmitigated environmental problems, etc., and not just because life on a small-scale farm “sucks” so that people are picking up and moving to the city to work in horrendous sweatshop conditions. Certainly I doubt that many people would rather work in a sweatshop than on their own farm. But economic forces are driving people from the land to the sweatshops. How convenient for Nike, etc.

      As for this:
      “Eventually, working conditions do improve, but you need the jobs to come first. Japan, or the US, is the model.”

      I do hope you’re not suggesting the completely ahistorical view that working conditions in the US, or Japan, improved without workers organizing like they are in Vietnam. Working conditions do not just magically improve. They only improve in response to worker demands and organizing.

      • 1. Absolutely crucial for understanding all of this is trade liberalization and agriculture. You are completely correct. Effectively, global agricultural policy created the labor force for outsourced factories.

        2. Also correct on environmental impacts.

        3. Oh I’m sure Dilan would have totally supported those labor struggles in the US or Japan in the past. Just like he always does…

      • xq

        I do hope you’re not suggesting the completely ahistorical view that working conditions in the US, or Japan, improved without workers organizing like they are in Vietnam. Working conditions do not just magically improve. They only improve in response to worker demands and organizing.

        Real wages are growing very fast in Vietnam despite union suppression (http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@dgreports/@dcomm/@publ/documents/publication/wcms_194843.pdf). I don’t deny the importance of worker organizing, but you need the growth in order for workers to get a share of it. And they are.

        Harder to quantify “working conditions”, of course.

      • Brett

        1. The maquilladoras date back to the 1960s in Mexico, and they were already huge even before NAFTA really went into effect. And for good reason – Mexico’s agricultural system sucked. The ejidos were enough to allow a bunch of people to live on them in extreme poverty, but not much more (and at the cost of higher food prices for everyone else in Mexico).

        As for small-scale farmers, well, you fight subsidies with subsidies. Small-plot farmers can be extremely productive with fertilizers, sharing of machines, and so forth. Granted, you don’t want to encourage people to remain as poor farmers, but China showed a pretty good way of doing it.

    • It’s cute when an utterly mendacious commenter who opposes labor rights pretends to care about workers overseas.

      But I do like the whole “support the stated goals of workers in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Bangladesh = maintain the noble savages as savages while the richer white unionized workers keep their factories”

      I would sign up for your newsletter, but I could read the Wall Street Journal instead.

      • Joe_JP

        Dilan Esper, who thinks Clinton is too right wing, simply “opposes labor rights”? Life is easier when things are so black/white, I guess.

        • Brett

          So “dilan” is Dilan Esper? Because I could have sworn that Dilan Esper actually posted as Dilan Esper at one point.

          • The Temporary Name

            Google is unforgiving.

      • Remember, he also said that he is “sick of people bringing up slave labor” about the people working on the stadia in Qatar.

        • elm

          In fairness to Dilan (ugh! See what you made me do?), you’re taking that out of context. He said he was opposed to the labor practices in Qatar, just that he thought they were irrelevant to the FIFA corruption probe. His position on FIFA was awful on its own and, as far as I can tell from his comment here, he’s at least a little bit out in,left field, so there’s no need to distort what he says to make him look worse. He can do that himself when next he shows up.

          • The corruption he says shouldn’t be illegal led directly to those people being treated that way, as there’s no way in hell the World Cup would ever have been awarded to Qatar without it.

    • DrDick

      There are similar movements in most or all of the destination countries for outsourcing, which you would know if you cared at all about labor rights and people in the third world. Of the top of my head, I can think of examples in Mexico, Indonesia, Thailand, and Bangladesh.

    • wengler

      You really need to read a primer on the Industrial Revolution. The bright shiny pull of the coal mine wasn’t as strong as you think. The closing of the commons and raising of rents was much more powerful.

      As for your other points, I’ve been waiting 200 years for a capitalist economy to provide full employment. It’s just not going to happen. When labor is a disposable cog in the wheel of industrial manufacture, there is no such thing as stability, only indefinite servitude for as long as the heads of the company decide not to automate or dislocate.

      • DrDick

        Knowing anything about subjects on which he has very strong opinions is antithetical to dilan.

    • cpinva

      “There’s a reason that every country that ever had an industrial revolution saw thousands of people swoop in to take factory jobs despite appalling conditions.”

      and if that were the case, you might well be on to something. you don’t. these countries aren’t undergoing an “industrial revolution” ala Europe and the United States in the 19th century, which was domestically driven, financially, technologically and labor wise. these third-world countries are having pre-existing industries planted there, solely because of the availability of incredibly cheap labor, little to no environmental or labor laws/regulations, and (sometimes) easy access to cheap raw materials & supplies. we aren’t talking soup-to-nuts industry (conception/manufacture/marketing/sales/delivery), we’re talking strictly the most labor intensive, least expensive aspect, manufacturing.

      so no, it’s not a “revolution” at all, it’s use/abuse/dispose.

  • Where do they say they oppose the TPP? I read

    we believe that the U.S. Congress must use the opportunity of granting fast track authority as leverage to make immediate transformative changes so that the citizens of Vietnam can enjoy their human rights and basic freedoms.

    That sounds like they favor making the agreement the right way, exactly as Obama insists he intends. It could virtually be a quote from Obama. Without any agreement at all, what trade leverage does the US exert on Vietnam?

    • Murc

      Without any agreement at all, what trade leverage does the US exert on Vietnam?

      The Vietnamese plutocrats wish to sell what they produce in our market, the largest economy in the world. That’s no small amount of leverage.

      It’s also unhelpful to conflate “No to TPP” with “No to any trade agreement.”

      And while Obama insists that the TPP will be beneficial to workers, talk is cheap and the evidence we’ve seen indicates it will be anything but.

      • Brett

        They want to, but there’s no way they’ll agree to a trade agreement that allows independently organized trade unions (that in fact actively promotes independently organized trade unions). Dictatorships like Vietnam are pretty deeply suspicious of any sort of independent civic groups that might become a locus for resistance against government power, which is almost certainly what would happen with independent trade unions in Vietnam.

        • cpinva

          you’re probably right. my feeling is, fuck them. if they want the bennies, it’s going to cost them something in return, or the jobs stay right here.

          if the TPP actually provided for the things we’ve been discussing, then Obama would have had it plastered everywhere it would fit, for all to see. he hasn’t, and it doesn’t.

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