Vietnam to allow free labour unions ?

The US trade representative, Michael Froman, greets the Vietnamese minister of industry and trade, Vu Huy Hoang. Picture courtesy of European Pressphoto agnecy.

The US trade representative, Michael Froman, greets the Vietnamese minister of industry and trade, Vu Huy Hoang. Picture courtesy of European Press photo agnecy.

Vietnam has agreed to wide ranging labour reforms, including allowing the formation of free and independent trade unions with the right to strike, under the terms of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreed last month.

The complete text of the TPP, released this week, outlines the full extent of the concessions made by Vietnam in the face of American demands.

The terms are in a separate bilateral agreement between Washington and Hanoi – one of the clauses in a mammoth trade pact encompassing twelve countries bordering the Pacific Ocean.

“Without reservation, I think this is the best opportunity we’ve had in years to encourage deep institutional reform in Vietnam that will advance human rights, and it will only happen if TPP is approved,” said Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state in an interview with the New York Times.

Vietnam has committed to allow workers the right to strike, not just over wages and hours, but over working conditions and other grievances as well.

“Vietnam shall ensure that the procedures and mechanisms for registering grassroots labour unions are consistent with the labour rights as stated in the ILO Declaration, including with respect to transparency, the time periods for processing and membership requirements, and without prior authorisation or discretion,” states the agreement.

It also commits Vietnam to pass laws to allow the organisation of workers across different companies and sectors in

Vietnam's low wage economy stands to gain most from the TPP

Vietnam’s low wage economy stands to gain most from the TPP. Photo courtesy of NYT

accordance with the ILO (International Labour Organisation).

Compliance will be monitored by a joint committee, made up of government representatives from Vietnam and the United States.

The granting of direct oversight to Washington over an area as sensitive as labour practices, and the rights of workers, makes clear how badly Vietnam wanted the TPP.

Even conservatives in the communist leadership, with their deep suspicions of American motives, eventually dropped their opposition to the accord because of the huge benefits it offers the Vietnamese economy.

Vietnam is seen as the single biggest beneficiary of the pact, should it be ratified. Its low cost manufacturers would gain unrivalled access to some of the world’s most lucrative markets, and Vietnam would be seen as an even more attractive destination for foreign investors.

Sceptics, however, expect the communist authorities to do what they can to drag their feet over compliance with the new labour rules.

Human rights groups say that enforcement will be a major problem in a such an authoritarian society where the Communist Party maintains a monopoly on power at all levels of civil organisation.

Vietnamese workers, of course, will only get the opportunity to test their government’s commitment and resolve if the TPP is ratified by Congress in Washington.

President Obama is dependent on Republicans for support, having lost the backing of the two Democratic front-runners in the run-up to next year’s election.

He will need to convince many in his own party and beyond that American workers are granted enough protection under the TPP from low cost economies on the other side of the Pacific.

To that end, he can be expected to make much of the concessions wrung from Vietnam, and that focus will at least put additional pressure on the authorities in Hanoi to comply with the deal they’ve signed up to.