While the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is expected to boost Vietnam’s economy as many companies increasingly turn to it for inexpensive labor, the trade deal also presents some uncertainty about the formation of independent unions and the future of animal husbandry in the authoritarian, one-party state.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who pushed for the Pacific trade deal approved on Monday to counterbalance China’s growing influence in the region, believes the TPP will increase worker protections in Vietnam and other Asian countries by letting employees form independent labor unions.
Communist authorities in Vietnam permit only their own official workers union and have jailed workers who have attempted to form independent organizations.
“I think that [authorities] must let workers have their own unions and associations, so whenever they have a problem, the organizations can protect them,” said a Vietnamese worker who requested anonymity. “We need to have independent unions, so workers can … know their rights and better understand the law. We just can’t let [authorities] do whatever they want.”
But most Vietnamese workers appear to know little, if anything, about the TPP and how it will affect unions.
One woman who works for a privately-owned factory in the central province of Quang Nam told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that she must pay 10,000 Vietnamese dong (U.S. $0.47) from her monthly salary of 3.8 million dong (U.S. $171) to the officially sanctioned labor union, although she doubted that the organization protects workers’ rights as it should.
The woman, who declined to be named, said she works from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m., but sometimes must work additional hours.
Although there have been no worker protests in Quang Nam that she is aware of, the woman said it remains to be seen what impact the TPP will have on labor relations.
“I don’t know, when it comes we will see,” she said.
A worker in Nghe An province in the north central coast region of Vietnam, said she must pay monthly union dues of 15,000 dong (U.S. $0.67), and that she was unfamiliar with the concept of independent unions for workers.
“I have not heard anything about it, nor do I understand anything about it,” she said.
Le Thi Cong Nhan, a lawyer and labor activist, told RFA that it is not surprising that Vietnamese workers are unaware of the possibility of forming independent unions under the TPP.
“Vietnamese workers’ knowledge [about their rights] is the same as that of the Vietnamese in general,” she said in September during a trip to Washington to meet with a U.S. Senate official. “They vaguely know about human rights, including labor rights. At present, they only know about the government’s union.”
Just after the TPP was finalized, Vietnam’s Minister of Industry and Trade Vu Huy Hoang told the media that his country would fulfill the labor obligations and rights set out by the United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO), to which the country belongs, because such conditions are the same as those of the TPP.
But Vietnamese labor activist Do Thi Minh Hanh told RFA that the country hasn’t lived up to its labor obligations under the ILO or the World Trade Organization, which it joined in January 2007.
“They said that Vietnam is a member of the ILO, which has conditions about labor rights, but in fact we can see how Vietnamese workers have suffered through strikes and cannot speak out,” she said, citing cases where factory owners have run off leaving behind workers with nothing.
“Vietnam joined the ILO and WTO, but it lies to the world with rhetoric and fake reports, saying that the country does have a labor union which cares about workers’ benefits, while in fact it’s not true,” Do Thi Minh Hanh said.
With the advent of the TPP, the Vietnamese will come to understand more about their rights, so the government won’t be able to hide the truth about how it treats workers, she said.
A blow to animal husbandry
Independent labor unions aren’t the only change that the TPP has in store for Vietnam.
Minister Vu Huy Hoang said the country’s U.S. $10 billion-a-year animal husbandry industry will face many difficulties under the trade pact, because Vietnamese farmers who raise chickens won’t be able to compete with imported livestock products.
The industry consists of about 17 million family farms that raise livestock, although only 23,000 of them use modern production methods, according to the Vietnam Animal Feed Association. Many operations are small-scale enterprises that don’t generate huge profit.
“Besides benefits, which includes job creation [under the TPP], there could be millions of jobs created in lucrative industries, while others, including husbandry industry, may suffer,” economist Vo Tri Thanh, vice director of Central Institute for Economic Management, told RFA.
Some involved in the industry believe that with the elimination of tariffs under the TPP, many animal husbandry products will lose out to those of its trade partners, forcing many family farms out of business.
Pham Duc Binh, vice chairman of the Vietnam Animal Feed Association, said the country must import corn and soybeans from the United States and South America to use for animal feed, as well as livestock to use for breeding.
“Because this makes our cost very high, … we don’t have the capability to compete,” he said. “Once we integrate with other countries [under the TPP], I can’t say our industry will be terminated, but we will face a huge loss.”
Besides Vietnam and the U.S., the TPP includes 10 other countries — Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru and Singapore — which together comprise 40 percent of world trade.
Lawmakers in the TPP nations must still ratify the pact before it can take effect.
Reported by Gia Minh and Nam Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.