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Could Vietnam be Kicked Out of the TPP for Labor Violations?

Vietnam has consistently been a magnet for controversy during the now stalled Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, largely over the complex contours of “rules of origin” for fibers. However, it now has taken center stage for its questionable labor practices and human rights record, both potential hurdles to be cleared for the TPP to reach a final settlement.

Several major labor and trade organizations are vocalizing their misgivings about Vietnam’s labor standards, calling for its elimination from TPP discussions until these issues are adequately addressed. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Communications Workers of America each offered damning criticisms of Vietnam’s neglect of basic human rights.

The U.S. government has acknowledged Vietnam’s woeful record on labor rights in the past, denying it access to its Generalized System of Preferences program (GSP) since 2008 in response to evidence of a pattern of worker abuses. Also, the U.S. maintains an arms embargo against Vietnam for the same reason.

Last July, a ban on the purchase of garments made in Vietnam has been imposed by the U.S. government on all federal agencies as a result of disclosures that the apparel may be made by forced or indentured child labor. And in January 2013, two officials from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) visited Vietnam to determine the extent of forced or indentured child labor in their garment industry. Conferring with government officials, unions and international and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the representatives developed a dark picture of Vietnam’s child labor law violations.

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Most child labor is employed in small, unregistered factories, according to the information provided by the various sources the ILAB officials interviewed. It was determined that child labor abuses were widespread, occurring in more than just isolated cases.

The systematic monitoring of child labor is conducted mainly in the large, registered factories, according to comments from the Vietnamese Ministry of Labor, the Invalids and Social Affairs and the Vietnam Textile and Apparel Association. Small, unregistered factories and home-based production shops are not monitored.

In a statement reporting its evidence of child labor abuses, the ILAB said, “In many countries, laws, policies and programs that are effective for registered factories are less effective at reaching children and other exploited workers in unregistered, more hidden work settings, and this appears to be the case in Vietnam’s garment industry.”

The TPP discussions require that all potential signatories adopt labor regulations that are both strong and enforceable, which includes a ban on child labor as well as the right to form unions and collectively bargain. Many critics observe that Vietnam has refused to ratify the United Nations Convention of 1948 which concerned the freedom of association, organization, speech and demonstration. In fact, the Vietnamese government passed a law in 2005 which prohibits protests in front of government buildings and state agencies. Any gathering of more than five people requires explicit permission from the government, not easy to procure.

Also, while Vietnam is home to many labor organizations and NGOs, all of these groups, including religious ones, require the certification of the state and are tightly regulated. The only national trade union, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor, is essentially an arm of the government.

U.S. legislators have taken notice. Last December, a letter signed by forty-seven members of the U.S. House of Representatives expressed misgivings about Vietnam’s lack of respect for human rights, citing its alarming arrests of journalists, bloggers and activists critical of the government. While many U.S. officials have publicly praised Vietnam for making great strides in this area, a State Department report issued last year catalogued a litany of its recent abuses including the severe circumscription of civil liberties, the denial of basic political rights, the limitation of religious freedom and rampant governmental corruption.

However, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is on the record lavishing Vietnam with praise for the progress it has made. He said, “Vietnam has proven that greater openness is a great catalyst for a stronger and more prosperous society and today Vietnam has a historic opportunity to prove that even further.” Kerry continued, “A commitment to an open Internet, to a more open society, to the rights of people to be able to exchange their ideas, to a high-quality education, to a business environment that supports innovative companies and to the protection of individual people’s human rights and their ability to be able to join together and express their views.”

The textile and garment industries are central to Vietnam’s economy. Last year, its more than 4,000 companies earned in excess of $20 billion, accounting for about 15 percent of its GDP.