A new AFL-CIO report released today finds that four nations that would be major players under the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are out of compliance with international labor standards and, therefore, with the commitments they would undertake under the TPP. The report—The Trans-Pacific Partnership: Four Countries That Don’t Comply with U.S. Trade Laws—finds that workers in Mexico, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei face ongoing and systematic abuse and violations of workers’ rights with the complicity or direct involvement of the governments.
The Obama administration is pressing Congress to grant it Fast Track trade authority for the TPP, the largest Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in history. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO is pressuring lawmakers to hold potential trading partners to comply with U.S. trade laws and international labor standards.
Under Fast Track, the public, lawmakers and others would have no input in a trade deal that would grant countries with troubling human and labor rights records greater trading privileges without having to first undertake fundamental reforms.
The highest labor standards the United States has embedded in FTAs require parties at a minimum to adopt and implement laws that protect the rights enshrined in the International Labor Organization’s (ILO’s) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.
The report points out that previous FTAs have forced countries to compete on the basis of lowering labor costs and attracting business by ignoring, or in some cases actively interfering with, the fundamental labor rights.
By not requiring fundamental changes of these countries first, the TPP gives away leverage that could be used to protect workers and raise standards. If workers do not have the legal freedoms to act collectively, they will not be able to exert the power needed to raise wages, increase worker protections or gain the social policies necessary for the creation of a middle class and broadly shared prosperity.
Here are just some of the ways the four nations violate these core labor standards:
Mexico is currently facing a human and labor rights crisis. The recent disappearance of 43 students, now declared dead, from the teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, by local police and criminal gangs is a horrific example of violence, corruption and dissolution of the rule of law. Corruption, abuse and impunity are also root causes of the near absence of genuine industrial relations in Mexico, which artificially depresses wages and limits economic growth. Many workers are covered by collective agreements (“protection contracts”) they have never seen or ratified through a vote. When workers attempt to organize independent unions, employer-dominated unions respond with threats and intimidation. Further, child labor, forced labor and inhumane working conditions exist on farms that export fresh produce into the United States, which is then sold at major retailers, including Walmart and Safeway.
Malaysia has grave problems with forced labor and human trafficking, especially in the electronics, garment and palm oil sector, which also contains child labor. Malaysia currently has the lowest possible ranking—tier 3—in the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report, meaning the government “does not fully comply with the minimum standards and is not making significant efforts to do so.” Because of this pervasive exploitation, virtually everyone who regularly uses electronics in the United States has come in contact with forced labor. Some of the most recognizable electronics brands source components from Malaysia, where about 28% of electronics workers toil in conditions of forced labor.
Vietnam has an authoritarian government that tightly controls political rights, freedom of speech and other civil liberties. The government maintains a prohibition on independent human rights organizations and other civil society groups and restricts union activity outside the official unions affiliated with the Communist Party of Vietnam’s Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL), which actually controls the union registration process. Vietnam also has significant problems with forced labor and child labor in the production of bricks and garments, Many of the clothes produced in Vietnam contain textiles from small workshops subcontracted to larger factories. These workshops frequently use child labor, including forced labor involving the trafficking of children from rural areas into cities.
Brunei is ruled by a repressive regime and offers few human rights protections. Last year, the sultan of Brunei, whose family has ruled Brunei for more than six centuries, imposed a strict penal code based on Sharia law. The Islamic criminal law includes punishments such as flogging, dismemberment and death by stoning for crimes such as adultery, alcohol consumption and homosexuality. Under emergency measures in place for 65 years, freedom of speech is severely limited and the country’s legislature has a limited role. Further, the government prohibits strikes, and the law makes no explicit provision for the right to collective bargaining.
This article originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 23, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
About the author: Charlie Fanning is the Global Advocacy and Research Coordinator at AFL CIO