US & Vietnam Labor Advocates Say Senate Must Vote NO on Fast Track

Jim is running for Assembly in LD30, and runs Educating for Justice, a US-based labor rights organization that focuses on SE Asia. .

When President Obama spoke at Nike’s headquarters in May to promote the Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact, each of us was shocked given our first-hand knowledge of Nike’s consistently poor treatment of its workers overseas.

In Indonesia, Nike has 168,000 workers who are paid a paltry $212 a month. Here Nike has busted unions, refused to pay even the minimum wage, has verbally and physically threatened workers for exercising their fundament right to freely associate, and they have cheated workers of millions of dollars in overtime pay. Along with the labor rights violations, Nike has also been dumping and burning scrap shoe rubber in Indonesian villages for 25 years – pumping toxins and carcinogens into the air, water, and soil.

In Malaysia, Nike has been found guilty of employing thousands of illegally trafficked workers. These workers had their passports confiscated to prevent them running away to get help or to find a better job. For years, Nike turned a blind eye on this issue until we brought the matter to prime-time TV and forced them to address it.

In Vietnam, the situation is even worse. This is important in the current political context because Vietnam is seen as the linchpin of the TPP deal and Nike is the largest private employer in Vietnam with 330,000 workers. Here, workers are paid $132 per month. Because of Nike’s poverty wage, many workers cannot afford their basic needs, most distressingly, childcare. They are forced to leave their babies and young children with grandparents in their home villages while they migrate to cities to work. If they are lucky, they see their children a few times a year. Along with poor wages, workers in Vietnam deal with verbal abuse, inhuman production quotas, and one worker reported that because of restrictions on the use of toilets at work, a co-worker wet her pants on the production line despite repeated requests to her supervisor for a bathroom break.

Why are conditions for Nike workers in Vietnam worse than Indonesia and Malaysia? Because workers in Vietnam have no voice. Through its state-run “union,” the ruling party has had an iron grip on labor for 50 years. It works with the police and government security forces so that workers who organize strikes are fired, arrested, and even jailed.

When courageous workers in Vietnam were fired for standing up themselves in recent years, Nike replied, “it is (our) legal right to terminate any employee who misses more than 5 days of work participating in a ‘wildcat strike’.”

Can you understand now why Nike should not be held up by the President as a model for trade and why the pending TPP deal needs a lot of work if it is going to protect the basic rights of workers both internationally and in the United States?  

This work will not be done if the Senate passes the Fast-Track bill today. Fast-Track will tie the hands of Congress on negotiating a better deal for workers and on ensuring that workers are protected moving forward.

With previous trade agreements, US Administrations have not promptly acted when trading partners do not live up to their promises on labor standards. Not only does this lead to violations of the rights of workers in those countries, it also creates the uneven playing field that leads to the loss of millions of American jobs.

The Administration has promised Congress that if given Fast Track authority, it will negotiate with more force and act more swiftly if trading partners break their promises. Should the Senate who will vote today believe this?

Harvey Bale, former senior USTR trade negotiator and former Director General of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA), wrote recently that Fast Track “encourages our negotiators NOT to negotiate hard on behalf of the general welfare (including labor).”

What are we asking Congress to do?

First, do not pass Fast-Track without strict conditions on labor and the environment.

Second, establish legislation that will force the Administration’s hand in enforcing these conditions on labor standards and protecting the environment. These cannot be “best efforts” initiatives. These need to be laid out as clear and measurable objectives; there must be monitoring mechanisms to ensure compliance; and there must be harsh penalties for violations.

One legislative initiative could create a legal requirement that companies operating overseas in a TPP country must pay no lower than that country’s living wage and must observe the ILO’s core labor standards regardless of whether that country has ratified them. In Vietnam, this would mean that Nike could not fire striking workers and their workers’ wages would increase by about 50% – dramatically improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of working families. For those concerned about the impact of this on the cost of your Nike sneakers, it would add a whopping $2 to the price tag on your Jordans.

A second legislative initiative would require the Department of Labor to set up an office in Vietnam that reports regularly to the White House and to Congress. Thus, if Vietnam’s regime again oppresses independent unions, Congress can demand accountability and penalize the regime.

We also think Vietnam’s long-oppressed nascent independent union movement deserves a helping hand. After some five decades of oppression, the movement is in the dark ages, while the anti-worker machinery is well-entrenched and well-financed by the regime. An investment of even just a million dollars a year in small grants to help independent unions forge a foothold will go a long way to help workers exercise their basic human rights and to fight for wages that will allow them to live in dignity.

We are hopeful that the United States Congress will heed our advice and will negotiate a trade deal that will truly promote freedom, prosperity and justice for all and not just for the multinational corporations and their executive elites. It is time that the people, through their elected officials, had a voice in shaping the landscape of global trade. Anything short of this is un-American.


Jim Keady and Trung Doan

Mr. Keady is the Director of Educating for Justice, a US-based labor rights organization that focuses on SE Asia

Mr. Doan is the Director of the Free Viet Labor Federation (Viet Labor), an alliance of labor groups inside and outside Vietnam

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