Asia Labour rights in Vietnam, Malaysia centre-stage in US trade battle

    Major trade legislation is slated for discussion in the US Senate on Tuesday, but growing opposition focused on workers’ rights around the Pacific Rim threatens to block progress.

    Published: 12/05/2015 at 04:24 PM

    WASHINGTON — Major trade legislation is slated for discussion in the US Senate on Tuesday, but growing opposition focused on workers’ rights around the Pacific Rim threatens to block progress.

    The issue before Congress is the revival of fast-track trade authority that expired in 2007. The measure would speed trade deals through Congress and allow US trade negotiators to handle in good faith with potential trade partners.

    With two major international trade deals under negotiation — one with Pacific Rim countries, a second with the European Union – fast-track backers are keen to see the bill clear Congress.

    The backers include an unusual coalition of President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and Republican lawmakers who are his usual opponents in Congress.

    Indeed, it is Mr Obama’s own Democrats in Congress, traditional allies of organised labour, who want to put on the brakes.

    The latest salvo came Monday in a letter from 14 top Democratic senators insisting that Mr Obama require at least four countries — Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Mexico — to implement stronger labour standards before the 12-country Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal takes effect.

    “American workers cannot compete against workers in these countries where fundamental worker rights are not protected,” the senators wrote. They included Ben Cardin, Charles Schumer and most significantly, Elizabeth Warren.

    Warren, one of the more-populist members of Congress, has led the charge against fast-track authority as well as the trade deals, saying they give unfair advantage to corporations while ignoring worker rights.

    The battle took a bitter turn over the weekend, when Mr Obama told Yahoo News that Mrs Warren is not only “absolutely wrong,” but also trying to exploit the issue to build her political profile.

    The fast-track bill — formally known as trade promotion authority (TPA) — is to come before the full Senate on Tuesday, the result of a much-hailed bipartisan compromise at the committee level.

    It would set standards for the first time to include “strong, fully enforceable protections” for workers’ rights, the environment and an open internet, its backers say.

    But opponents on Tuesday could, with only 40 votes, block an end to debate and subsequent voting. Democrats, although in the minority in the 100-seat Senate, hold enough seats to do so, and their minority leader, Senator Harry Reid, is reportedly preparing to lead the action.

    Since the Pacific Rim trade deal is nearer completion than that with the EU, much of the current focus in trade circles is there.

    In fact, labour standards — especially in Vietnam — drove much of the discussion Monday at a gathering of the Washington International Trade Association.

    Celeste Drake of the premier US labour lobby — the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organizations — dismissed assurances by US trade officials that Vietnam was improving labour standards and would continue to do so with technical assistance from more affluent nations.

    Vietnam’s issue was not one of technical capacity but rather of political will, Ms Drake said. The socialist country’s main labour organisation — the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour — only does “social events and picnics and cakes on birthdays,” she quipped.

    It falls far short of an independent union that can fight to raise wages and create a middle class that can buy US-made products, she said.

    “It won’t be fixed through technical assistance,” she said.

    In their letter to Mr Obama, the 14 senators noted that the VGCL is “an arm” of the Vietnamese Communist Party and “does not allow workers the freedom to associate or collectively bargain.”

    Unless the United States insists that Vietnam meet core labour standards before the trade deal is implemented, it will have almost no ability to change things on the ground there afterwards, the senators wrote.

    Chief negotiators in the Pacific Rim deal are to meet beginning this week in Guam.

    Later in the month, on May 26-28, US Trade Representative Michael Froman is to attend a high-level meeting of trade officials in the Philippines, a possible indication of progress in the talks.