While the “May 10” labor standards (created as bipartisan compromise between the Republican Bush Administration and Democratic leaders in the House) represented a step forward from the labor standards of CAFTA, they are not sufficient to truly level the playing field for workers inside and outside the U.S. or to remedy the weakness of the virtually unfettered discretion that the U.S. and trading partner nations enjoy to delay or ignore labor rights submissions indefinitely. In 2011, the AFL-CIO joined with labor federations from the majority of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) countries to draft and submit a comprehensive labor chapter that attempted to address past shortcomings. Given the secrecy of TPP negotiations, we cannot say exactly what the final labor chapter will look like, but from what we know, it’s not likely to be a meaningful improvement over past, failed provisions.
As the AFL-CIO has previously noted, the choice of trading partners in the TPP is cause for great concern. For example, barring a decades-long delay between the Administration’s slated completion date for the TPP and its entry into force, we foresee virtually no possibility that Vietnam will be in compliance with even “May 10” labor commitments on day one. Despite years of talks, the TPP’s backers have failed to guarantee that Vietnamese workers will have the right on day one of the TPP to form and join independent labor unions. As recently as September 2014, a senior economic adviser for the general secretary of Vietnam's Communist Party indicated that labor issues remain the biggest TPP obstacle for Vietnam. He told the Voice of America “there has been no sign that Hanoi will compromise on the issues of human rights, labor rights and independent trade unions.”1
As explained in a recent AFL-CIO report, at least three other TPP partners, namely Malaysia, Brunei, and Mexico, have human rights shortcomings so serious as to require major shifts in labor policy and enforcement to come into compliance with internationally recognized labor rights on day one.
To let the TPP enter into force without full compliance with all labor commitments from all twelve countries could undermine the standards set throughout the agreement. It sends that message that promises to comply—not actual compliance—is sufficient. In November 2014, the Government Accountability Office reported that the U.S. government’s enforcement of labor provisions in existing trade agreements is already weak. And the TPP’s backers have not explained how enforcement will improve in the future, especially given the challenge of adding so many trading partners with problematic labor records in one fell swoop. As a result, the AFL-CIO has determined that the TPP, in its current form, is unacceptable and will harm U.S. working families. It must improve in multiple areas—including with respect to labor rights—to earn the support of working people.
1. "Vietnam Rights Still Obstacle to TPP Membership," Voice of America News, Sept. 11, 2014.