Frequent readers of our posts may have followed our developments on understanding the Cambodian model and whether it is implementable in other parts of the world. On another front, Mr. Nguyen Van Phu, Managing Editor of the Saigon Economic Times, explains the two schools of thoughts in Vietnam regarding the controversial TPP agreement. In his blog post to the Financial Times on October 10th, 2013, Mr. Phu describes how the TPP is being used by advocates as a way to enforce better labor standards for domestic workers.
Activists in Vietnam fight tenaciously for many things. They’ve advocated land ownership for farmers, equal footing for the state-owned and private sectors and the suspension of a costly bauxite project that is neither financially viable nor environmentally friendly. And yet, they have never raised their voices against the dark sides of free trade agreements as have their peers in other developing countries.
Granted, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a comprehensive free trade agreement that Vietnam is negotiating with 11 other countries including the US, will bring Vietnam some obvious benefits. However, these activists also understand very well the negative aspects of joining this “high standard” trade agreement at a time when their country is at the bottom of the global value chain. They know that local farmers will be exposed to new competition with their richer and heavily-subsidised counterparts; that Vietnam will get stuck with low-wage, environmentally costly labour-intensive industries like textiles and garments where local manufacturers can’t move beyond subcontracting jobs; and, most of all, that stricter intellectual property rights will likely translate into more expensive drugs for the Vietnamese people.
Not only have Vietnam’s liberals kept their mouths shut about these issues, they have tried to sell the TPP to the people as something inevitable, a remedy for all economic woes.
The reason is simple: these liberals want to use the requirements imposed by the TPP on its members as leverage on the government to implement much-needed reforms. They hope that once within the TPP framework, Vietnam’s government will have no option but to abide by transparency in policy-making, cease giving preferential treatment to state-owned companies, open government procurement to the private sector and pay more attention to environmental requirements… In short, do those things that their government is supposed to do but does not.
These omissions are seen especially in the case of Vietnamese workers’ well-being. Vietnam is a “socialist” country where workers are supposed to be the leading political and economic force. Ironically, however, it is the “capitalist” US that is putting pressure on Vietnam to protect workers’ interests by setting up independent labour unions. It is exactly such TPP requirements that induce many Vietnamese liberals to give their strong support to joining the trade agreement.
Among the requirements that the US will impose in return for greater access to its market, especially for Vietnamese textiles and footwear, is better treatment of workers. In a stark reality check, US Representative George Miller, a Democrat from California, has written to US Trade Representative Michael Froman questioning whether Vietnam can comply with its TPP commitments because, Miller wrote, there is evidence that export industry workers in Vietnam are “routinely denied basic labor standards.”
Froman’s written reply is also to the point: “By including Vietnam in the TPP negotiations, we have [a] mechanism to improve adherence to labor rights and working conditions in Vietnam that would not exist otherwise.”
The proposed TPP text would apply the International Labour Organization’s principles of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, as well as the elimination of all forms of forced labour, child labour and gender discrimination.
People may ask if Vietnamese workers aren’t protected by their government and point to an extensive network of labour unions. The sad fact, however, is that the labour unions are mostly for show. They are used as instrument of state control, and union representatives are more like officials than workers’ representatives. They are normally the ones who prevent workers from going on a strike, rather than organizing it.
A recent scandal involving four public utilities companies in Ho Chi Minh City is so far the strongest evidence of this collusion. The directors of these state-owned companies draw salaries ranging from $100,000 to $130,000 annually in a country where the per capita income is just $1,500. How could they pay themselves such high salaries? They resorted to the very basic trick of “exploiting” their own workers: instead of signing on workers as full-time employees who would enjoy full wages and benefits, they hired them as seasonal workers who were paid as little as $250 to $350 a month.
Arguably, if the workers had an independent labour union, such a scandal would not have happened. If the labour union representatives at these companies did not receive perks from the directors, they would not keep their mouths shut as they did in this case.
Such scandals make people in Vietnam wonder if it is a blessing in disguise that the US seems to be really pushing for better working conditions. Foreign investors, including those from the US, seem to like the way labour unions in Vietnam operate now. The Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which represents domestic enterprises, has complained that “Vietnam is not ready for such high requirements on labour standards and implementation, which would increase costs for entrepreneurs, risk workers’ unemployment, and have high implementation costs.”
So whether liberals in Vietnam should regard the TPP as a remedy or just an irony, or even a double irony, remains to be seen.