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.