“They buy and sell us like cattle.” — 25-year-old Bangladeshi worker, who was trafficked among three contractors for six months without receiving any pay on Malaysian palm oil plantations. (Source: Wall Street Journal)
Co-authored by Abby McGill, Campaigns Director, International Labor Rights Forum
The text of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) finally became accessible to workers and the public last week, though insiders from more than 500 major companies have had access to the negotiation and writing process for years. The result predictably values the rights of corporations over the needs of workers and fails to address the most glaring weakness of past trade deals: the utter failure of the parties to uphold their commitments to respect workers’ rights.
In fact, language for an effective labor chapter offered by a coalition of national union federations from the affected countries was largely ignored:
• The agreement makes no progress on enforcement, ignoring common-sense proposals like requiring the parties to conduct timely, impartial investigations of allegations of non-compliance and firm deadlines for implementing necessary reforms.
• Requests to prohibit the trade of goods made with forced or child labor and to establish mechanisms to seize such goods at the border came out with the TPP merely “discouraging” trade in goods made with these egregious human rights violations.
• Requests to include protections for migrant workers, such as regulating labor recruiters or prohibiting confiscation of passports, were wholly ignored, despite well-documented, systemic exploitation of migrant workers in a number of TPP countries.
Proponents of the TPP argue that separate bilateral agreements on labor and human rights for Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei will improve conditions in these countries despite long-standing disregard for the most fundamental human rights, such as freedom of association and elimination of forced labor. This argument is based on the flawed premise, however, that serial labor rights violators will make necessary reforms after they receive the benefits up front.
We have seen this approach fail repeatedly. In the lead up to the CAFTA vote in 2005, the Bush Administration promised that the U.S. government would hold Guatemala, Honduras, and other parties accountable if they failed to improve their dismal records on labor rights enforcement. Ten years later, despite the filing of complaints that clearly show how Guatemala and Honduras continue to fail to enforce their labor laws, worker organizers continue to face threats, abuse, and worse. The Solidarity Center reported last month that more than 70 worker activists have been killed in Guatemala since 2007, and the AFL-CIO reported more than 30 were killed in Honduras since 2009.
More recently, during the negotiation of the U.S. – Peru Trade Promotion Agreement (PTPA) in 2007-2008, the Government of Peru promised to crack down on employers who routinely abused short-term, sequential contracts to undermine textile and garment workers’ right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. But the reforms never materialized, and six years later ILRF and Peruvian trade unions filed a complaint against the government of Peru under the PTPA highlighting the continued abuse of the sequential, short-term contracting by Peruvian employers to avoid unions.
Given this historical record of non-enforcement of labor rights provisions in trade deals, ILRF’s research shows particular cause for concern about the acceptance of Malaysia and Vietnam into the TPP.
Malaysia has well-documented, severe problems with the abuse of migrant workers, including widespread forced labor and human trafficking. In July, the Wall Street Journal documented workers trafficked from Bangladesh to Malaysia to work on palm oil plantations. The workers were in debt to a labor recruiter, their employer had confiscated their passports, many had not been paid in months and they were subjected to regular beatings. Many had come through jungle camps on Malaysia’s border that made international news throughout 2015, as mass graves of trafficking victims continued to be discovered. In the camps, refugees and other vulnerable populations are forced to call relatives to extort money for kidnappers while being tortured for weeks and months on end.
Vietnam remains one of the most authoritarian governments in the world, denying its citizens basic political freedoms, including free speech and the right to organize. Independent, democratic trade unions are not allowed and its minimum wage hovers around 60 cents an hour. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, child labor is common in the production of garments, a sector that will likely expand under the preferential treatment it is likely to receive under the TPP. Finally, the International Labor Rights Forum’s 2014 report revealed the government’s continued reliance on a system of detention centers where alleged drug addicts are locked up for years without a trial and subjected to forced labor, producing goods for private companies, some of which are being imported to the United States.
These are not minor compliance issues; rather, they are systemic abuses of fundamental labor rights that will place these countries severely out of compliance with the TPP’s labor chapter on day one. In light of entrenched abuses in Vietnam and Malaysia, the TPP’s mere ‘discouragement’ of importing goods made with forced labor is clearly a gaping flaw that should oblige policy makers to start over and demand genuine worker accountability for any further trade negotiations.