WASHINGTON — A group of 153 House Democrats threw up another roadblock to the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement on Thursday, calling on the Obama administration to incorporate strong, enforceable, core labor protections in the trade deal, particularly for Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Mexico.
This story first appeared in the May 30, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The U.S. is negotiating the TPP trade accord with 11 other countries — Vietnam, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru and Singapore.
The fashion industry has been watching the negotiations closely. Vietnam is the second-largest apparel supplier to the U.S. and its inclusion in the TPP talks has ramifications for all segments of the industry.
But its prospects have been dampened somewhat by growing opposition from Congressional Democrats, many of whom are facing tough reelection fights in November.
In a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, the lawmakers cited reports from the U.S. Labor and State Departments that they said show “major abuses of human and workers’ rights” in those four TPP countries, including forced labor and child labor; pregnancy and gender-based discrimination; health and safety hazards; excessive working hours, and inadequate wages.
The signatories said they are seeking strong enforceable labor plans to ensure all trading partners abide by core international labor standards.
“We must do everything possible to prevent the American marketplace from being flooded with imports manufactured by workers laboring without human dignity and individual rights,” the lawmakers said. “The administration must refrain from validating such woefully inadequate labor norms and the final agreement should be withheld until these countries embrace the need to reform their labor laws and move aggressively to implement them.
“In countries like Vietnam, in which workers have faced extraordinary abuses, there must be binding and enforceable plans to bring those countries’ laws and practices into compliance with TPP labor requirements,” they said.
In a conference call with reporters, Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.) said he had learned that the U.S. is negotiating a separate labor action plan with Vietnam that would not be incorporated in the TPP agreement itself, but would instead be treated as a side deal.
A USTR spokesman declined to confirm whether the U.S. is negotiating a separate labor action plan with Vietnam, but stated in an e-mail: “We have been absolutely clear that TPP must include strong, enforceable protections for workers at the core of the agreement. That’s why we are currently pursuing provisions in TPP that will increase respect for labor rights, improve conditions for workers and level the playing field for U.S. workers.”
But Miller said that he would not accept any TPP deal that treats labor enforcement provisions in a purported side agreement.
He pointed to the separate labor action plan the U.S. negotiated with Colombia as part of the bilateral free-trade deal, noting that conditions have not improved for workers in the South American country in the two years since the trade deal took effect, despite the side deal on labor.
“We’ve all seen this show before,” he said. “You get down to what they believe is the end of these negotiations and then they put working people in this country and the rights of working people in other countries; they put them in a side agreement.…We learned the hard way that labor protections simply don’t work when they are treated like an afterthought in trade negotiations.”