Nike Know-How: Three Key Questions on Labor

May 7, 2015

On Friday, President Obama will visit Nike to make the case for congressional approval of Trade Promotion Authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday that the president would use the event "to illustrate how a responsible trade agreement that includes enforceable labor and environmental standards would strongly benefit middle-class families and the American economy" and that the key difference between TPP and previous trade agreements is that this deal contains provisions "that would actually be enforceable."

The President’s visit begs three key questions:

  1. Will the Administration agree that the countries must change their labor laws before the Agreement is considered by Congress?

Enforceable ILO labor and environmental standards have been in U.S. trade agreements since 2007, starting with passage of the Peru FTA, and later with the Panama, Korea and Colombia FTAs in 2011. In fact, House Democrats negotiated those provisions with the Bush Administration and they were added to all four trade agreements.

The key difference from those FTAs and the TPP is that the countries were required to change their labor laws and brought them into compliance before the vote in Congress. House Democrats insisted on those changes and in some cases negotiated directly with the countries.

  1. Will the Administration agree to tell Members of Congress about the specific discussions with these countries on changes to their labor laws and practices?

Right now, the laws of Mexico, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei are out of compliance with the labor provisions in the TPP.  The Administration has not provided Members of Congress with the specific changes that are being discussed with these countries – even on a confidential basis – so there is no way to know the full changes that are being discussed. The information the Administration has provided causes concern that Vietnam would not be required to allow unions to form without restrictions as required by the ILO.  A “consistency plan” with Vietnam has been referenced, but it is not available to Members of Congress.

The situation in Vietnam is particular troubling. With a command economy and a single labor union that is part of the Communist Party, Vietnam is far from providing a legal and practical environment where workers can exercise their rights under the International Labor Organization standards. Indeed, Rep. Sander Levin met a woman in Vietnam who was thrown in jail for more than four years for trying to organize workers in an independent union.  Her colleagues imprisoned with her are still in jail. 

  1. Will the Administration negotiate an independent panel for Vietnam that can assure compliance from Day 1?

Enforcement within any agreement is key, but the Administration refuses to accept a suggestion with respect to Vietnam that an independent panel be established from the beginning to ensure compliance with the labor obligations and expedite a dispute. Without such a structure, future cases will need to be built from scratch by outside groups, and submitted to the U.S. government, a process which has taken several years for the Department of Labor to act on in Honduras and Guatemala.