Malaysia is one of Asia's biggest employers of foreign labour. But recently, cases of deaths, abuse and forced labour have come to light. What is going on? Who is protecting these migrant workers?
By WILLIAM MAULDIN
ATLANTA—The major Pacific trade agreement that officials unveiled Monday includes stepped-up powers for the U.S. to put pressure on developing nations to improve labor practices—such as requiring Vietnam to allow independent trade unions and Malaysia to cut down on human trafficking.
“This agreement establishes the strongest labor standards of any trade agreement in history,” U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman said at a press conference “They’re all enforceable in the agreement.”
Under the internationally enforceable framework, the governments in the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s 12-nation bloc will be able to challenge fellow countries if they don’t follow through with labor-action plans established in the negotiations.
This marks an expansion of how trade deals can be used to change labor conditions in trade-deal countries. Previously, U.S. trade agreements only allowed countries to challenge another nation’s labor conditions if a country failed to uphold its own domestic laws or core international labor standards.
The Obama administration has long promised higher standards for labor and environment in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, in part to address concerns from American workers that such trade agreements allow companies to move production overseas, benefiting from lower wages and laxer regulation. Stiffer rules for companies’ workers and environmental practices can help level the playing field between the U.S. and low-wage countries like Malaysia, Mexico and Vietnam.
House Democrats have criticized the administration for including Vietnam in the TPP talks, publicly attacking the country’s labor practices, environmental record and food safety. At the same time, allegations of human trafficking in Malaysia this year led some lawmakers to press for its exclusion.
“These are the conditions of the ILO, and Vietnam is a member of the International Labour Organization,” Vietnam Minister of Industry and Trade Vu Huy Hoang said Monday. “We commit to fulfill the rights and obligations of the ILO.”
“I would like to dispel the notion that Malaysia will not be able to implement the labor chapter,” said Datuk J. Jayasiri, Malaysia’s lead negotiator in Atlanta. “Malaysia has already put in place a number of measures.”
U.S. officials see the two southeast Asian countries as an essential part of the TPP, which is meant to put pressure on China— not a part of the bloc—and other developing economies in the region to adopt American-style commercial rules and standards.
Aides to Mr. Froman have focused much of their attention on labor issues in Vietnam and Malaysia, as well as in Brunei, a TPP member that has strong religious laws. These Shariah-based laws have been widely criticized in the U.S. for their potential impact on religious minorities, as well as gays and lesbians.
Rep. Sander Levin (D., Mich.), the top Democrat on the House committee overseeing trade, has said he also wants more pressure on Mexico, which has lured many low-paying auto-industry jobs from the U.S., to improve its labor conditions.
It wasn’t clear if the labor rules U.S. officials pushed in the TPP would be enough to win support for the overall deal from labor groups, Mr. Levin or the other critical Democrats. Still, the efforts are likely to shore up support among the group of Democratic lawmakers who supported Mr. Obama earlier this year on “fast track” trade legislation to expedite congressional approval of the TPP.
Republicans and U.S. business groups haven’t welcomed additional steps on labor beyond what was in prior trade agreements, and GOP support for the TPP is unclear, especially in the 2016 election season.
The TPP’s labor commitments build on those in previous U.S. trade agreements and core international labor practices, adding rules requiring that countries actively block the import of goods made with forced labor, prevent unacceptable conditions for workers and establish a minimum wage, among other steps. Bangladesh, not currently in the TPP, was widely criticized for permitting low standards in special export zones.
Under the TPP, Malaysia agreed to pass and implement laws that prevent employers from retaining workers’ passports; to require employers to give workers contracts; and to follow through with new anti-trafficking laws. Vietnam will have to clear the way for independent unions outside the Communist Party’s control, with workers having the right to elect their own union bosses and form affiliates and confederations.
The U.S. and other countries would be able to take them to a special dispute-settlement panel established by the TPP if companies or labor groups complain. The panel can then impose sanctions, depending on the outcome. Earlier trade agreements had less-enforceable labor plans, and the U.S. has only taken one country—Guatemala—to a dispute-resolution panel over labor practices.
Corrections & Amplifications:
Remarks from Datuk J. Jayasiri, Malaysia’s lead negotiator in Atlanta, were incorrectly attributed to Malaysia Trade Minister Mustapa Mohamed in an earlier version of this article.
Write to William Mauldin at email@example.com
Source: THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.
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