Worker Advocates Still Critical of TPP Upon Text Release

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By Michael Rose

Chris Opfer contributed to this report.

Nov. 5 — With the release of the full text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Nov. 5, labor unions and other advocates continue to criticize the agreement, as they have for months, on the grounds that it wouldn't benefit workers in the 12 TPP countries.

“The AFL-CIO is pleased that the public will finally get to review the TPP text for themselves rather than having to rely on characterizations and glittering generalities about what is in the text,” Celeste Drake, trade and globalization policy specialist at the labor federation, told reporters on a conference call. “But upon our initial review, we are even more positive than ever that the TPP really has a corporate agenda in mind and was not made to benefit working people.”

Drake noted as an example that the labor chapter of the agreement, which had not been previously released or leaked, doesn't ensure that workers across the TPP countries will be able to form unions and bargain collectively.

Beginning of Congressional, Public Review

Negotiators have been at work on the TPP for years, and the negotiations finally wrapped up Oct. 5 in Atlanta (192 DLR C-1, 10/5/15). The release of the text marks the beginning of a 90-day notice to Congress and at least a 60-day public review period before a vote by Congress on whether to ratify the deal.

The AFL-CIO and various individual unions have been sharply critical of the agreement, arguing that it would cause job loss in the U.S., does not provide for adherence to high labor standards and contains a controversial dispute resolution mechanism known as investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). They say the ISDS favors corporate interests by allowing corporations to challenge U.S. laws outside of the court system. The Obama administration, meanwhile, has said that ISDS provides an impartial, efficient way to settle investment disputes.

Countries Must Maintain Labor Laws

The labor chapter, among other things, provides that each of the 12 countries that are party to the TPP “shall adopt and maintain statutes and regulations, and practices thereunder, governing acceptable conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health.”

The agreement also includes three additional, bilateral agreements between the U.S. and Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, spelling out additional provisions on labor in each of those countries.

President Barack Obama in a Nov. 5 post on the website Medium wrote that the agreement “includes the strongest labor standards in history, from requiring a minimum wage and worker safety regulations to prohibiting child labor and forced labor.”

Drake, during the conference call, said it is “certainly an improvement” over past trade agreements that the TPP contains language specifying that countries must establish baselines for the minimum wage and other conditions of work. But, she asked: “Is it a meaningful improvement? We don't think so because there are no standards” in the TPP text for what the minimum wage or those conditions should be.

Under the agreement, “Brunei can enact a one-penny-an-hour minimum wage. That doesn't do anything to improve the status of working people in Brunei,” Drake said.

Advocates: Vietnam Agreement Insufficient

John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, during the conference call drew special attention to the side agreement, officially known as a “Plan for Enhancement of Trade and Labor Relations,” as insufficient.

Vietnam “is the country in the agreement that had the biggest labor rights problems of all the countries involved,” Sifton said.

“I do think that members of the [Obama] administration attempted to negotiate with Vietnam in good faith to make them adopt obligations that would change Vietnamese labor law and compel Vietnam to improve its labor record,” Sifton said. But the bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam “will probably not manage to pull off the labor reforms it is intended to accomplish.”

Among other things, the agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam provides that Vietnam will have five years from the date of ratification to comply with provisions specifying that labor unions may form in the country and obtain assistance from other organizations to bargain collectively. The U.S. may sanction Vietnam if it does not do so.

The agreement contains “lots of obligations on Vietnam to change its labor laws” and allow unions to exist, Sifton said. “If those things happen, that would be great.”

“But if they don't happen, will the United States have the capacity and the desire, the will, to actually enforce its terms and seek consequences against Vietnam?” Sifton said. “Our concern is that Vietnam may make legal reforms on paper to allow the agreement to come into force, but then Vietnam will turn around and not actually allow unions to be created.”

Sifton would rather the agreement contain a set of benchmarks for Vietnam to reach over set periods of time, he said. As those benchmarks were met—if, say, “actual unions” started operating in the country—Vietnam would obtain additional trade benefits under the TPP.

But such an “incentivization structure is gone” with the provision that simply allows the U.S. to retaliate if Vietnam doesn't allow unions, Sifton said. Furthermore, a subsequent U.S. administration may not even bother to do so, he said.

Peterson Researcher Applauds Vietnam Deal

But such a graduated structure would be impractical and unlikely to be negotiated, said Jeffrey Schott, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. The “commitment to Vietnam to fundamental changes in labor policy over time” is one of the “most important results” of the TPP negotiations, he told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 5.

“The fact that Vietnam made these commitments to fundamental reform is a really important step, probably much more so than the labor unions ever expected could be achieved in the trade agreement,” Schott said. “They may question whether at the end of the day it will be enforced, but we have the means of doing so, and Vietnam has the economic incentive to do so.”

Vietnamese officials, Schott said, “recognize they would have to undertake these rather difficult and important changes in their current policies if they were to gain the increased access to the U.S. and other industrial markets that are so important for their exporters.”

Negotiators on the deal came up with the best solution possible when it came to labor rights in Vietnam, Schott said, and U.S. negotiators likely took into account organized labor's concerns while crafting the side agreement with the country.

Capitol Hill Democrats Voice Concern

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, a group of House Democrats told reporters Nov. 5 that they're confident they can still stop the agreement from taking effect, now that lawmakers get a chance to review the deal. They cited a confluence of opposition, including from some Republicans who fear the deal will cost American jobs.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) told reporters that she was still sifting through the agreement but said the deal appeared to be worse than she feared.

“Vietnam, from Day One, will get all of the preferential treatment that others will get without having to do anything about workers’ rights for five years,” DeLauro said. Other Democrats said the TPP will help businesses ship U.S. jobs to Vietnam, Malaysia and other participating countries where wages are lower.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in a statement Nov. 5 said the labor federation will “join with our allies to defeat the TPP” in the coming weeks. “From what we have already seen, it is clear that the threats of this expansive new agreement outweigh its benefits—for good jobs, for democracy, for affordable medicines, for consumer safety, and for the environment,” Trumka said.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters he hadn't yet reviewed the agreement. Ryan said he intends to give the deal a close look, but he also stressed that the TPP poses an economic opportunity.

“Trade is very important for America,” Ryan said during his weekly press conference. “It is absolutely essential that America write the rules of the global economy instead of others writing the rules of the global economy.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Rose in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at

For More Information 
Text of the TPP labor chapter is available at