TPP free trade agreement is non-starter for workers’ rights: Activist

As negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement continue, several members of the U.S. Congress held a press conference on July 9 on the steps of the Capitol, setting forth numerous objections to the Obama administration’s approach to the TPP.

In addition to opposing the President’s fast track authority, the members of the House of Representatives (Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), George Miller (D-CA), Louise Slaughter (D-NY), Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) and Donna Edwards (D-MD)) also demand that TPP addresses trade imbalances and upholds standards of food safety, workers’ rights and LGBT and women’s rights.

Two activists were invited to speak at the press conference, workers’ rights activist Jerame Davis, and Vietnamese blogger and civil society activist Pham Doan Trang, representing VOICE.

The TPP is an ambitious trade agreement that the United States is negotiating with 11 other countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region including Vietnam. Passage of the TPP is one of the primary goals of the Obama administration’s trade agenda. If completed, it will create a vast free-trade zone that will include practically every economy in the Pacific Basin.

The full text of Trang’s address follows.

* * *

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for inviting me here to speak about labor rights violations in Viet Nam, and why the TPP should be a non-starter.

On June 26, labor right activist Do Thi Minh Hanh, 29, was released from prison, and this is good news. However, it does not change the fact that labor rights, together with land rights and the right to expression, may be the three most widespread and seriously violated rights in Viet Nam.

Every year in Viet Nam, there are hundreds of workers strikes; and 95% of them are considered to be illegal. Why illegal? Because, no way can they be lawful under the Labor Code and Trade Union Law, which still deny the existence of independent labor unions.

The fact is that all unions are outlawed, except the monopoly state-run, the Viet Nam General Confederation of Labor, VGCL. Its owners are the ruling party, its officials are party officials, and its charter is to serve the party. We even have an internal VGCL document showing that VGCL asked police to arrest and punish strike leaders.

Every union must register with this Confederation to be recognized. And under law, strikes must be held by those recognized unions. The Labor Code also requires a process of conciliation and arbitration before the workers can conduct a strike. So, it is understandable that under such harsh requirements, 95% of the strikes are deemed illegal.
Also, 95% of the hundreds of strikes each year are related to wages, or the low incomes. As Viet Nam has undergone economic recession since 2008, workers are among the worst impacted victims. They suffer from low incomes, working overtime without being paid; many are denied insurance or heath care programs, especially in private sector. Working conditions have been lowered, and collective food poisoning has been widespread.

Just over a week ago, two hundreds of workers had been poisoned after having dinner in a company located in Ho Chi Minh City. Before that, on May 15, five hundred workers in Thanh Hoa province were poisoned as well because of drinking water provided by their employer. And these are just the known cases. Many similar cases must have happened in Viet Nam without being known and no one has been charged for that. The health and the lives of workers have been continuously threatened without any significant protection, especially from the Vietnamese government.

Forced labor is another violation of labor rights. There are reports from former political prisoners on the exploitation of prisoners, using them to produce garments, furniture, and cashew nuts.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We understand that when found to be violating labor rights, Vietnam’s ruling party wants to pay fines rather than enduring increased tariffs.

We also understand that by releasing Do Thi Minh Hanh early, the Vietnamese government just wants to pretend to the world that they are respecting labor rights.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I’ve been talking about bad faith and rights violations, but I’d like to end by noting that there is some hope. Facebook is hugely popular in Vietnam, connecting people; and there are dozens of NGOs who are actively protecting and promoting human rights. I know this because my group, VOICE, is in frequent contact with some such groups.

So, on behalf of VOICE and democracy supporters in Viet Nam, I would love to say: Don’t have a trade agreement in which labor rights are not enforceable. My people aspire to economic prosperity, but it must hand in hand with liberty. Please be with us on our journey.

Leave a Reply