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2017-03-01 00:43:04
Trump’s Trade Retreat Could Hurt Push for Labor Rights Abroad

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — Do Thi Minh Hanh, a labor activist, had grown accustomed to being beaten, hospitalized and jailed for her work in a country where independent trade unions are banned.

So it gave her hope for a reprieve when Vietnam reached a trade deal with the United States and other countries that called for its members to bolster workers’ rights and protect independent unions.

That hope fizzled in late January, when President Trump pulled the United States out of the trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with the stroke of a pen.

“The Vietnamese government will use this as an excuse to suppress the labor movement,” Ms. Hanh said. “They never wanted to have independent unions in Vietnam.”

That labor-rights promise has become collateral damage as the United States turns inward under Mr. Trump. As the new president vows to rip up or rethink relations with trading partners, he could also abandon accompanying pledges the United States has won from other countries to protect workers’ rights and the environment.

Critics of the labor and environmental protections in the T.P.P. and other trade agreements consider them a political sop that amount to unenforceable window dressing. Still, America’s new trade retreat could allow countries like China to set the terms of global commerce — countries that are unlikely to use their economic heft for moral persuasion.

For example, America’s withdrawal from T.P.P. paves the way for China to advance its own Asian free-trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The China-led deal, said Rajiv Biswas, the Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Global Insight, “is less ambitious in its scope of coverage, and does not include major reforms to labor protection standards.”

American negotiators in recent years have added labor and environmental protections to trade deals as anti-globalization sentiment rose in the United States. Over the past 24 years, the United States has struck 13 free-trade agreements covering 19 countries that include worker and environmental protections. In most cases, the deals merely call for the countries to follow their own laws.

Supporters of these measures argue that they can have an impact. Following the American example, the European Union has started adding similar requirements to its trade deals. American negotiators have also strengthened the language somewhat in more recent trade deals, including the T.P.P.

Those agreements had “real teeth in terms of trade sanctions” said David A. Gantz, a law professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson who is an expert on international trade agreements. “They might have made a real difference had T.P.P. gone forward.”

He added, “These provisions in U.S. free-trade agreements can be more than fig leaves, but with an important caveat: The U.S. government in particular has to be willing to be active in enforcing them.”

That can be tough, given that the country on the other end of the treaty may have to pass new laws to comply, labor groups say.

“Any trade agreement must have strong labor provisions to mitigate a race to the bottom,” said Sharon Waxman, the president of the Fair Labor Association. “But what we find is that trade agreements are often wrongly viewed as a substitute for national laws that protect workers’ rights and ensure they are compensated fairly.”

In a 10-page side agreement, the T.P.P. would have required Vietnam to criminalize the use of forced labor and broaden enforcement to apply to cases of debt bondage. On labor unions, workers would be allowed to form their own grass-roots unions that could bargain collectively and lead strikes. Vietnam has started drafting some of these changes but timing on their execution is uncertain, said Oliver Massmann, a partner at the law firm Duane Morris Vietnam. A separate trade agreement between Vietnam and the European Union will also target labor conditions when it takes effect in January, but it lacks the stronger enforcement measures of the T.P.P.

Vietnam’s economy has taken off as China’s labor costs have risen, sending factory owners to look for cheaper labor elsewhere. Labor activists say many of its factories have improved from the blatant sweatshops that prevailed in the 1990s, prompting companies like Nike to impose monitoring and compliance standards on suppliers in Vietnam.

Still, Vietnam remains plagued with labor problems. A 2015 survey of its garment industry found that most of the factories that were inspected suppressed independent unions and failed health and safety checks.

On the northern outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, a sprawling, three-million-square-foot factory compound owned by South Korea’s Hansae Vietnam makes clothing for big Western brands and retailers like Nike. A pair of large strikes prompted labor groups to inspect the factory multiple times last year.

One veteran seamstress from the factory said the situation had generally been improving as the factory added cooling units. Sometimes workers faint because they are sick, she adds, complaining that it is often difficult to get sick leave from managers. She requested to speak without using her name because of worries about losing her job. Another veteran worker, who asked to be identified only by his surname, Nguyen, said that overseas buyers might stipulate improvements that needed to be made, but factory management did not always follow through.

Nike, which once accounted for 9 percent of the factory’s output, has imposed penalties and cut its purchases to 3 percent. It continues to discuss conditions with Hansae, a spokeswoman said via email, “recognizing that the issues at Hansae are complex, systemic and require sustained diligence to correct.”

Hansae — which has acknowledged some problems but called others “rumors” — hired Gare Smith, a lawyer with the Foley Hoag law firm in Washington, to work with its Vietnam plant to improve its worker complaint system. The work culture is also an issue, he said: “Are managers buying it and running with it, or are they rolling their eyes and ticking boxes?”

Currently worker groups are controlled by the government, which generally forbids strikes and other labor actions to avoid political or social instability. Ms. Hanh, the labor activist, said she had been cautiously hopeful that the T.P.P. could help. “The T.P.P. had a part about labor unions,” she said. “That would have given me a legal base and made it easier to convince workers to join.”

A diminutive 32-year-old who discusses jail stints, beatings and labor slogans in the same matter-of-fact tone, Ms. Hanh first awakened to Vietnam’s labor problems as a young teenager, when she took a bus to the country’s interior and sat next to a woman who worked at a cashew factory. The woman told her that workers at the plant were paid so little they had to steal nuts for food.

In Vietnam, organizing is done quietly. To pave the way for one strike at a shoe factory, a colleague spent weeks in the area talking to workers and building contacts. Ms. Hanh wrote fliers and taught a core group of workers how to organize and strike. She counts the resulting January 2010 strike of 10,000 workers as a victory because it resulted in big pay raises for workers, even though she and two of her colleagues were thrown in prison.

Released four years later, Ms. Hanh found grass-roots organizing had become much harder. She said she was often followed now, making it difficult to meet with timid workers. One of the last times she went to a worker protest, in late 2015, she was beaten by police. Now, she said, she devotes most of her time to campaigning on social media and raising concerns with big Western companies.

She was skeptical that local authorities would have complied with the toughest labor protections in T.P.P., adding that chances were good they would have sought out loopholes. Still, she says, the pact could have given her a tool to use when pushing labor issues with lawmakers and factory bosses alike.

“I would have used the clause of T.P.P. about the right to form independent unions — unions that are not controlled by the company and the government,” she said.

“Maybe now because of Trump, our dream about independent unions in Vietnam has yet to come true,” she added. “But we will still try to help the workers, because if they fight alone they will not succeed.”