A Postcard to Vietnam: If Not Worker and Human Rights Now, When?

As the President embarks on an important trip this weekend, I am reminded of the individuals in Vietnam that I met over a year ago when I traveled there with a Congressional Delegation.

I met a dedicated young labor activist named Do Thi Minh Hanh. She had recently been released after serving four years and four months in prison for trying to organize workers. We took this picture together:

Meeting with Do Thi Minh Hanh in Vietnam in March 2015

In 2010, Ms. Do and two of her colleagues were arrested, sentenced, and imprisoned for peacefully organizing workers at a shoe factory. Her colleagues — Mr. Doan Huy Chuong and Mr. Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung — are still in prison serving seven and nine year sentences respectively for distributing leaflets to striking workers.

I had their experiences fully in mind when I pressed for worker rights provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. But words on a piece of paper are not enough, so I was deeply dismayed that the Administration did not call on Vietnam to begin changing their laws and practices in order to come into compliance with their obligations in the TPP.

That’s exactly what Democrats in Congress required of Peru — changes in their laws before we voted on the Peru Free Trade Agreement.

When Vietnam joined the TPP negotiations, it was clear that the country’s participation would present a major challenge. For the United States, this would be the first trade agreement negotiated with a communist country, where the only union allowed is part of the Communist Party and the government.

In Vietnam, workers do not have the right to form or join an independent union of their choosing, nor to organize across enterprises, or to affiliate with confederations.

TPP incorporates the provisions for enforceable worker rights obligations, in line with the landmark “May 10th Agreement” authored by House Democrats and accepted by the Bush Administration in 2007. These obligations require all TPP countries, including Vietnam, to implement the basic standards for worker rights, such as the right of workers to be represented in the workplace as they choose and to bargain collectively, consistent with the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. TPP also includes a bilateral agreement between the United States and Vietnam that spells out a plan for Vietnam to implement the many reforms required to provide for basic worker rights.

By signing TPP, Vietnam agreed to bring about major structural changes in industrial relations in Vietnam.

Yet, no positive changes have been made in Vietnam. And where changes are occurring, they appear to be moving in the wrong direction.

In the weeks following the conclusion of TPP negotiations and the signing of the agreement, I learned that Ms. Do was beaten and detained by authorities while organizing workers terminated after a factory fire. She was treated at a hospital for her injuries.

Do Thi Minh Hanh being treated at the hospital (Photo: Viet Labor)

Since then, Ms. Do and her fellow labor activists have continued their work organizing in their communities, which includes disseminating to workers in Vietnam information about the worker rights provisions in TPP.

As a result of their work, the labor activists have been subjected to monitoring, intimidation, harassment, and assault by authorities.

Vietnam continues to punish and abuse Ms. Do and other labor activists who are seeking to exercise the rights that Vietnam has committed to provide by joining TPP.

The test of the reforms that Vietnam has agreed to make is its conduct on the ground.

If the significant structural changes that Vietnam has agreed to undertake are to be credible, Vietnam needs to be taking concrete actions now.

Those concrete actions include:

· Releasing Mr. Doan Huy Chuong and Mr. Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung, whose continued imprisonment for exercising rights that are mandated by TPP contradicts any reason to believe in Vietnam’s will or ability to deliver on its commitments. Their continued imprisonment has also been found independently by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions to be arbitrary and a breach of Vietnam’s international obligations;
· Ceasing the harassment, intimidation, and assault of peaceful labor activists and organizers; and
· Explicitly allowing and encouraging the efforts of labor activists and organizers to represent the interests of workers and to form independent unions.

U.S. trade agreements require our partners to provide rights for workers in order for them to earn a decent living and in order to create a standard of economic competition between countries that is not based on their exploitation leading to a race to the bottom.

These agreements should not simply be based on future promises. Given the experience on the ground in Vietnam for workers since the TPP was signed, the answer to the question “If not now, when?” seems more likely to be “never” when it comes to worker rights.

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