When the Obama administration finally reached an agreement with 11 other countries on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the president listed improving labor rights in other nations as one of the hallmarks of the deal. “When more than 95 percent of our potential customers live outside our borders, we can’t let countries like China write the rules of the global economy. We should write those rules, opening new markets to American products while setting high standards for protecting workers and preserving our environment,” Obama said in a statement.
But does the TPP really change anything in member countries such as Vietnam, Brunei, and Mexico, where worker abuses are rampant?
Most everyone agrees the agreement is an improvement over NAFTA, signed in 1995. Labor advocates have many complaints about that decades-old agreement, one being that many of the provisions meant to improve life for workers were unenforceable. In response to complaints about the lack of labor rights in NAFTA and other trade agreements, Congress came up in 2007 with the May 10th agreement, a bipartisan compromise aimed at ensuring that trade partners were actually working to improve labor conditions. It required that member countries adopt and enforce the basic labor standards set in the 1988 Declaration of the International Labor Organization. It also made labor disputes subject to the same settlement procedures as commercial trade disputes, meaning that countries that violated labor rules could be subject to sanctions. May 10th required the U.S. to hold countries more accountable for labor standards—Congress did not vote on trade agreements negotiated with Peru, Colombia, and Panama until those countries had changed their labor laws.
The TPP’s Labour chapter reiterates that all members should adopt and maintain the labor rights of the ILO. It also calls for all participants to end child labor and forced labor, and to allow workers to form unions and collectively bargain. It requires a minimum-wage, and safety and health standards meant to prevent common abuses like overcrowding, fire hazards, and overwork. But the document does not specify how any of those measures should work. And that’s a big shortcoming, according to John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director with Human Rights Watch. The minimum wage, for example, could be set at a penny an hour—which wouldn’t do much to help workers.