Vietnam risks TPP slot on labor reality

The United States-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, which is under negotiation among a dozen countries including Vietnam, requires that members adopt and maintain strong and enforceable labor provisions, including freedom of association, allowances for collective bargaining and zero tolerance for child and forced labor. If negotiators hold fast to these requirements, Vietnam will necessarily be barred entry to the partnership.
The legitimacy of Vietnam's one-party regime now rests solely on poverty reduction and high economic performance. The ruling Communist Party of Vietnam has thus placed high priority on joining the TPP. As China is excluded from the agreement, Vietnam would potentially be the trade grouping's main source of low wage labor. HSBC estimates Vietnam's participation in the pact would boost current gross domestic product by as much as 10% by 2020. A round of talks held in Singapore earlier this week failed to seal a final deal.
Powerful trade groups in the US, including the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the Communications Workers of America, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have raised strong objections to Vietnam's accession. US Organizations joining the campaign against it include the Citizens Trade Campaign, United Here and United Students against Sweatshops.
Their complaints against Vietnam's abysmal labor standards are well-grounded. The US government has not approved Vietnam's request to participate in the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) preferential tariff system since 2008, mainly due to Hanoi's systemic violations of labor rights. The US also maintains an arm embargo against Vietnam in punitive response to the country's poor human-rights record, including harsh curbs on any form of political dissent.
Vietnam's legal protection of civil liberties is at odds with the country's suppression on the ground. Article 25 of Vietnam's 2013 constitution guarantees the rights of freedom of speech, opinion, press and information. It also enshrines in law the rights to assemble, form associations and hold demonstrations.
In reality, Vietnamese citizens have no such liberties. Vietnam has not ratified the United Nations Convention of 1948 concerning freedom of association and protection of the right to organize, which came into force on July 4, 1950. Any gathering of five or more people requires permission from local authorities. A decree passed in 2005 prohibits any gatherings in front of state agencies, international conference venues, and the National Assembly.
Vietnam has many government-sanctioned organizations (GSOs) but no independent non-government organizations. All GSOs, including religious organizations, must belong to the government or be affiliated with the state. There are a few organizations that are subject to constant harassment by public security agents precisely because of their independence.
The Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL) is the sole national trade union in the country. All trade unions in Vietnam are required to affiliate with the VGCL, which is one of the mass movements of the state-affiliated Vietnamese Fatherland Front.
VGCL leaders at both national and local levels are required by the state to be card-carrying Communist Party members. Critics say they are well-paid for serving company owners and protecting the interests of the ruling party rather than those of workers. Dr Do Quynh Chi, a labor expert, founder and director of the Research Center for Labor Relations, wrote in a 2008 research paper that it is not unusual for managers to become union leaders and employers to manipulate union elections.
Legally, any labor strikes must first get the VGCL's approval. However, VGCL has never in its history initiated, organized, or supported any worker strikes. All strikes in Vietnam are thus spontaneous and technically illegal. The Vietnamese government recently issued a new anti-labor decree that requires workers who participate in illegal strikes to compensate company owners for any loss caused by their work stoppage.
Beyond these legal restrictions, some of the harshest forms of labor exploitation are commonplace in Vietnam, including widespread reports of forced and child labor. These practices continue despite Vietnam's ratification of two International Labor Organization conventions regarding child labor and minimum wage payment for employment respectively in 2000 and 2003.
Prisoners are routinely required to work hard labor for little or no pay. Much of the food and many of the goods they produce can be found in local markets. Cashew nut processing in harsh prison conditions is notorious for the use of abusive practices.
Human Rights Watch has reported that forced labor has been used in drug rehabilitation centers across Vietnam, where inmates have to husk and peel cashews for six to seven hours a day for as little as US$3 a month. Inmates in other detention facilities, including prisoners of conscience, have also been pressed into cashew nut processing. Cashew exports earn the country approximately $1.5 billion a year.
Communications Workers of America has criticized the use of child labor in Vietnam. In its document on the TPP, CWA wrote "trafficking of children from rural communities to urban areas remains a significant problem. According to media accounts, garment factory owners paid parents $50-$100 to send their children to the city to work. The US government corroborated this finding when it issued a final determination that Vietnam utilizes forced child labor in garment production."
Vietnamese law stipulates that the minimum age for employment is 18. However, children between the ages of 15-18 can work if employers get permission from parents and the Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs. The ministry, however, has very limited resources to enforce the laws, opening the way for widespread abuse. While education is compulsory and free through the age of 14, government officials seldom enforce the requirement.
Similar to its 1992 predecessor, the 2013 constitution guarantees all fundamental rights to Vietnam's citizens, including developed country standards for protection of workers. In practice, most Vietnamese workers suffer tremendously from low wages, long work days, no overtime pay, unhealthy working conditions, and lack of insurance and pensions. These are the reasons for rising labor unrest in Vietnam.
The first wave of wildcat strikes in Vietnam occurred in 2005. Workers went on strike 400 times in 2006, 600 times in 2007, and 762 times in 2008. The frequency and intensity of these strikes was expected to intensify due to rising inflation beginning in 2009. By 2011, the number of strikes rose to 978, forcing employers, including foreign investors in textiles and garments, to pay higher wages. Still, the average Vietnamese factory worker must work at least 10 hours a day for six days a week just to earn on average $70 per month.
Vietnam is expected to gain immensely from the TPP thanks to its low-wage structure and huge, young and educated labor force of almost 53 million people, accounting for roughly 60% of the total population. The TPP would bring more foreign investment into Vietnam and provide the country with opportunities to diversify its economy by moving from exporting raw materials and producing labor-intensive goods towards more high-end value-added products.
The TPP's various labor protection measures make it a model for future free trade agreements around the world. Until Vietnam implements significant labor and civil liberty reforms, it should not be granted the privilege of membership.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Khai Nguyen is a former senior research analyst at the World Bank, a former professorial lecturer at the Paul H Nitze School of the Advance International Studies of Johns Hopkins University, and a former editorial consultant for Radio Free Asia.