House Dems press for strong labor rights in Asia-Pacific trade deal

A majority of House Democrats on Thursday urged the nation’s top trade official to ensure workers are protected worldwide in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations.

Led by Reps. George Miller (Calif.), Mark Pocan (Wis.), Loretta Sanchez (Calif.) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), 153 Democrats sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman asking for the TPP to include an enhanced framework for protecting international human and labor rights.

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"We must do everything possible to prevent the American marketplace from being flooded with imports manufactured by workers laboring without human dignity and individual rights,” the lawmakers wrote.

They argued that particular attention should be paid to Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Mexico, which they say have "lengthy histories of denying workers their rights."

"The administration must refrain from validating such woefully inadequate labor norms and the final agreement should be withheld until these countries embrace the need to reform their labor laws and move aggressively to implement them."

They cited various reports from the State and Labor departments detailing labor issues in all of the countries, which include forced and child labor, health and safety hazards and inadequate wages.

“Those plans must be made public, and the changes to the laws and practices must be fully implemented, before Congress takes up TPP for consideration, while trade benefits granted by the agreement must be contingent on the plans’ continued implementation,” the lawmakers wrote.

They expressed concern that Vietnam’s trade leaders have signaled they may balk at making the changes needed to meet the TPP’s labor obligations and that their labor regime "must be substantially transformed" to be in compliance with the pact's requirements.

Three are worried that other TPP countries also can't meet the international labor standards.

They also expressed concern about a recent AFL-CIO report that details ongoing abuses of worker rights in Colombia even though the free trade deal included a separate labor agreement.

“We have learned the hard way that labor protections simply don’t work when they are treated like an afterthought in trade negotiations,” Miller said in a call with reporters.

“We shouldn’t have to relearn that lesson. We already know that a side agreement didn’t work in Colombia and it’s clear that it won’t work for Vietnam — or for any of the TPP negotiating countries where violations of worker rights are so pervasive."

In Malaysia, there are reports that collective bargaining is “severely restricted" including prohibitions on union membership in several sectors.

The lawmakers said there are similar concerns in Brunei that include a prohibition on strikes and a failure to protect workers who face dismissal because of union activities.  

Also, Brunei recently adopted Sharia Law, with penalties that include flogging, dismemberment and stoning, "raising much broader human rights issues," they said.

In Mexico, protection unions and the protection contracts they sign “have continued to be a problem in all sectors, and many observers noted that a majority of workers in unions belonged to unrepresentative unions.”  

“These issues must be addressed in a serious and meaningful way in order for the TPP to move forward," they wrote.