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TPP, Vietnam, and Labor

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The U.S. and Vietnam have a side agreement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership that supposedly makes it easier for labor unions to organize. It sounds good in theory but probably will do nothing to protect worker rights.

A pact between Washington and Hanoi to strengthen labor unions in Vietnam could give workers more bargaining power, but the impact will depend on how Vietnam carries out the agreement, longtime Vietnamese government advisers and other specialists said on Thursday.

The side agreement to the Trans-Pacific Partnership calls for Vietnam to pass legislation that would legalize independent unions, allow them to strike and let them seek help from foreign labor organizations like the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

Sounds good, right! But….

But Tony Foster, the managing partner of the Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City offices of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, a big global law firm, said that the labor provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership had been expected, and that it was unclear how much change they would bring to Vietnam.

The central question, he said, will be the extent to which the trade agreement increases the influence and independence of labor unions.

“The devil is really going to be in the details on a lot of this stuff — I’m sure people are going to be parsing it very carefully to determine what will really be required,” Mr. Foster said in a telephone interview from Hanoi. “It will be a balancing act for the government, and I’m sure they will comply, more or less.”

Multinationals have shown much more interest this autumn in investing in Vietnam, and the anticipated labor provisions of the trade accord have caused little concern among companies, he added.

That this doesn’t worry the corporations is a sign that this is probably going to be totally meaningless, or nearly so. First of all, there does not seem to be any hard consequences to Vietnam if they ignore it. The corporations certainly won’t care. The TPP gives all the benefits to the Vietnamese government up front. The real political concern here is getting the TPP through Congress. Once that happens, what’s the enforcement mechanism? If there was an enforcement mechanism and–most importantly–if workers themselves could access that mechanism and file complaints–then it would be a good thing. As is, this will probably go the way of other labor provisions in these big trade agreements and do almost nothing. It’s also worth noting, since the evangelists of free trade never actually ask workers in other countries what they think, that the Vietnamese labor movement opposes the TPP because it feels that it will make it harder for them to improve the conditions of workers.

Speaking of such things, this is a good place to remind people of my talk tonight in Providence at AS220 at 5:30 (although really at 6). I talked about the TPP with RI Future if you want to get a preview.

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  • Jhoosier

    Great and informative post, Erik.

    As I mentioned a while ago, I wanted to use your book as the basis for a unit I’m doing on “global economics” (whatever that means). Over the summer, my copy got lost between Japan, Vietnam and Ethiopia, so I’ve had to work with what I can find online.

    But I’ve kept the framework in mind, and started them off on the fantastic Cornell website about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, to which they replied, “why does this matter to me?”. We’ve since started looking at Rana Plaza for more context, and my next step is to look at Thai seafood fisheries and migrant farmers picking jalapenos.

    So someone out there is taking your material to heart, even if some of my students are more concerned about getting to Tokyo Disneyland before it closes.

    • Lee Rudolph

      the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, to which they replied, “why does this matter to me?”

      at which point I hope you were not tempted to lock the classroom doors behind you as you threw a few Molotov cocktails back over your shoulder.

      Jesus.

    • Awesome.

      I wrote the book specifically for assigning it to upper-division undergraduates. That’s actually the audience I had in mind. If you ever assign it, I’d be happy to videochat into your class.

      • DrDick

        I plan to redo the sections on globalization and neocolonialism to use sections of the book in my race and ethnicity class.

  • Brett

    I think it relies on the US government choosing to punish Vietnam for non-compliance by opening an investigation as to whether further tariff rollbacks should continue. Which of course means it’s virtually toothless – the US government isn’t going to jeopardize an increasingly valuable economic and military relationship with Vietnam over Vietnamese labor issues, either now or in the future.

  • Scott P.

    It seems that the objections boil down to “yes, these provisions exist, but in practice they will probably not have much effect”.

    Which to me seems little different than saying “yes, the Iranians have agreed to inspections, but they will probably cheat, so the agreement is worthless”.

    We ought to fight for tough provisions and enforcement of those provisions, but dismissing actual language because it will prove impossible to enforce is essentially saying no to any agreement of any kind whatever.

    Why should I then advocate for the suggestions you make in Out of Sight? After all, even if they were inserted verbatim into an agreement they’d just “probably go the way of other labor provisions in these big trade agreements and do almost nothing.”

    • Because my ideas have enforcement mechanisms. That’s the difference.

  • wengler

    Yes, the authoritarian Communist Party state will undoubtedly allow independent trade unions as part of its commitment to a trade agreement.

    Do you think both sides had a good chuckle when they wrote that?

    • hylen

      Both sides do it!

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