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July 27, 2017

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Vietnam sees reform chances, labor challenges in TPP

By Catherine Barton

HANOI -- After organizing communist Vietnam's first peaceful mass strike at a shoe factory, labor activist Do Thi Minh Hanh was arrested, beaten bloody by police, and jailed for four years.

Authoritarian Vietnam does not allow the millions of workers in its export-orientated factories, which are driving impressive economic growth, to form independent trade unions.

But this should change with the coming into force of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a deal that has been touted as a foundation for "21st century trade" by U.S. President Barack Obama.

The TPP seeks to liberalize commerce in some 40 percent of the global economy, and if ratified would oblige signatories — be they the U.S., Japan, Canada or Vietnam — to allow independent trade unions.

But activists like Hanh say the one-party state is a long way from concretely committing to that kind of change.

"Vietnam still wants to maintain its monopoly on trade unions," said Hanh, who was released from prison in 2014 but lives under constant police surveillance.

Currently, all unions are part of the Vietnam Confederation of Labour, which is older than the ruling communist party.

Such official unions are "established to control workers, not to represent them," activist Hoang Dung told AFP.

The lack of meaningful representation is counterproductive as it leads to more wildcat strikes, said labor activist Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh.

"Workers demonstrate as they cannot negotiate," she said.

Quynh is not optimistic about the TPP as "who can ensure that the trade union is really independent and will listen to workers' concerns?"

Company vs. Worker Rights

The TPP contains a controversial investor-state dispute settlement mechanism which allows companies to take governments to court if they feel their rights are violated.

But the deal has no equivalent enforcement mechanism to make sure member states live up to their commitments on labor or the environment.

Oxfam's Andrew Wells-Dang notes that Vietnam has signed up for numerous rights and labor agreements in the past but failed to implement them.

The TPP "could contribute to opening up space on labor issues ... but what happens if it doesn't?" he said.

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