Joe, Leanna, Hollis and I went down to Vung Tau, a seacoast city two hours southeast of HCMC. Our guide was Thi, a 19-year old freshman whose family lives there (see next post).
On Sunday morning the four adults left the hotel and went to find a coffee shop on a street at the edge of Thi’s neighborhood. We sat in comfortable chairs under a striped awning and drank various versions of Vietnamese coffee and talked. There was a sea breeze and a blue sky.
A small, fifty-ish muscular man in an orange T-shirt heard us speaking English and paused on his way over to his own table. The picture above was taken before this happened, so you can’t see him in the background.
He said, “Aha, Americans, we will see a lot of you now with TPP.” We laughed and he went on towards the other people who were waiting for him.
Later I went over to his table and, apologizing for interrupting, asked if he would mind talking to us a little bit about TPP.
He was happy to do this. Here is basically what he said: “ TPP will be a good thing for us because we will have independent unions. Right now, the union belongs to the government. It does not do anything for workers. Workers don’t see it. It is part of the government.”
We asked, “But will Vietnamese workers really organize their own independent unions?”
“Yes,” he said. “It will happen.”
He himself is an employer. His company, which is based in Vung Tau and makes equipment like cables, hooks, slings, chains and other things that lift stuff up in the air and move it from one place to another, very important in a shipyard, has 30 employees.
“How will employers respond?” we asked.
“They will do it.”
“You are an employer, how will you respond?”
“It is the law,” he said. “They have to allow it.”
We pointed out that in the US it is also the law to allow workers to organize unions, but in practice it is very hard to do because of employer opposition.
“Employers in the US have too much freedom,” he said. “Workers have freedom, employers have freedom. Too much freedom.”
There was that little twinkle that I often see in the eyes of Vietnamese when I make a comparison with the US. It’s as if they are saying, “Oh yeah? You think so?” A great deal of self-confidence is behind that twinkle. “You think we weren’t paying attention?”
He just came back from a conference in Ho Chi Minh City where various government ministers talked about the changes that were coming under the new trade agreements. It sounds as if changes will come sooner rather than later. The TPP will be very good for the Vietnamese garment industry, he said. They heard about the agreements with Chile, Peru, Singapore, Japan and other countries. Vietnam has a whole set of trade agreements, not just the TPP.
You could ask, “Why doesn’t the US government step in and restrain employers who interfere with workers organizing?” But deep, deep in my view of how things work is the certainty that any law that protects labor by restraining capital will not be enforced. This has been true in my life ever since I was born. In the US, employers certainly do have this freedom.What if this is not true in Vietnam?
Our reading of the TPP Side Agreement is that it is one-sided, favoring the US corporations; that it promises many protections to Vietnamese workers that US workers don’t have or that we had to fight tooth and nail to get; that it may make conditions worse for Vietnamese workers if it weakens the VGCL and divides labor into less powerful, scattered organizations; and that it may allow forces hostile to Vietnam’s socialism to interfere in Vietnam’s internal affairs, violating their sovereignty.
US union people will assume that all those new rights and protections will go unenforced, like in the US. But what if they’re wrong?
Vietnam observers that we have talked to have warned against assuming that Vietnam has entered into the TPP without sufficient preparation. One of them pointed out that for the Paris negotiations, the US rented space for a year; the Vietnamese bought a house.