It’s been a long journey out of the aftermath of civil war for Vietnam, transforming from the object of American invasion into a bastion of American neoliberalism.
So when President Obama toured Nike’s headquarters in Oregon and heralded the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a boon for US jobs, that translated in Vietnam as a bonanza for low-wage factory workers, who currently make up a third of the brand’s global manufacturing workforce.
The mega trade pact is alleged to help equalize these trading “partners,” supposedly bringing Vietnamese labor protections in line with international standards. Trade ministers insist that such deals commit signatory countries to enhancing labor, environmental, and social regulations. But actually, the reason businesses tend to relish free-trade agreements, and unions loathe them, is precisely that trade liberalization allows multinational brands to exploit the absence of those labor protections in poorer countries.
While US unions have denounced the pending trade deal as a pathway to more offshoring of jobs, the bigger labor crisis lies in the kind of jobs that end up on those far-flung shores. Now that trade liberalization has devastated American manufacturing, the anticipated effect of the TPP on US workers is vastly dwarfed by the influx of “opportunities” for Vietnamese workers, who vie with their relatively better off Chinese counterparts for contracts with Western companies. That typically means “competing” downward on safety protections and job security—as evidenced by the massive strike at Yue Yuen shoe factory earlier this year, which was sparked in part by fears of seeing their jobs drift to even cheaper southern neighbors (sound familiar?).
So when those jobs in Nike’s supply chain land in Vietnam, a top source of US apparel imports, they bring grueling labor conditions.
It could be that big reputable corporations will select more humane suppliers, but they’d still ultimately fuel a manufacturing system that typically pays workers a few dollars a day (less than a third of a living wage), according to Worker Rights Consortium (WRC). Poorly regulated Asian factories are rife with fire hazards, shaky buildings, and other workplace dangers—which help yield the “cost efficiency” that subsidizes higher-end assembly jobs in, say, Oregon. Nike employs some 330,000 Vietnamese workers, many of them migrants who reflect the country’s yawning rural-urban wealth divide, paying them roughly $132 per month.
Activists say that to make global trade a net gain for workers rather than a net loss, governments should leverage trade deals with strong labor reforms, such as measures to prevent workers from being shunted into forced labor camps for drug users, considered a cruel kind of “treatment” for tens of thousands of people. Though the system’s influence in the broader economy is unclear, workers have reported being “treated like animals” as they produce wares like soccer balls and cashews, sometimes for private companies.
The International Labor Rights Forum’s recent report on forced labor in Vietnam recommends that in negotiating the pending trade deal, the US trade representative “should not provide Vietnam with greater market access unless the government ends forced labor and closes the drug detention centers,” and should place Vietnamese cashews on the Labor Department’s blacklist of products linked to forced or child labor.
Aside from carceral labor, labor rights are further imperiled by more routine abuses. According to a 2013 WRC report all-day work shifts, forced labor, and child labor are common in factories, which often supply major Western brands. Workers are beset by wage theft and gender and pregnancy discrimination. If they protest working conditions or organize independently of the state-controlled official union, they risk “firing, blacklisting, physical violence and imprisonment.” Activists say that the official union apparatus effectively bars any meaningful labor action (though the number of strikes across Vietnam still leaped from about 420 to 980 from 2011 to 2012). In recent years, wildcat strikes involving tens of thousands of workers for suppliers for Keds and Adidas have led to arrests, brutality, and arbitrary detentions.
According to WRC, “while more than half of foreign-invested firms reportedly have collective bargaining agreements, nearly all of these simply offer workers terms and conditions to which they are already entitled under the labor law.” They might fall short of even that, as explained by a worker quoted by WRC: “We are all so exhausted from the job, but whenever somebody asked for a reduction in overtime they were fired.”
Though the TPP is on the fast track through Congress, labor groups continue pressing Vietnam to prove it is making progress on basic labor protections before entering a trade agreement.
Labor activists Jim Keady and Trung Doan recently wrote in an open letter urging Congress to use the trade talks to push Vietnam to abide by International Labour Organization standards, which could increase wages “by about 50 percent—dramatically improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of working families.” Doan, who now lives in Australia, said his colleagues’ effort to start an independent union in Vietnam years ago was “promptly silenced by violence before it could operate.”
Asked about labor questions surrounding the TPP, Labor Secretary Tom Perez told The Washington Post that Vietnam’s compliance with labor rules could be incentivized by pressuring the Vietnamese lawmakers “to make significant changes in their laws,” based not on strict conditions but voluntarily, on a so-called “consistency plan.”
WRC Executive Director Scott Nova remarked on the troubling consistency of failed efforts to address workers’ struggles: “Vietnam remains one of the worst countries in the world in terms of factory working conditions, and independent unions are barred by law. The type of labor rights mechanisms that will be included in TPP have a long track record of ineffectiveness and do not stand a snowball’s chance in hell of improving respect for worker rights in a place like Vietnam.”
And fast track looks like it will take Vietnam’s workers back to a disturbingly familiar pattern: WRC notes that in 2012 the Labor Department “added garments from Vietnam to its official list of products made with forced and child labor, making Vietnam one of only seven countries in the world whose apparel received this designation.”
And now it joins another distinguished group of nations: our most reliable trading partners.