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On Nov. 5, 2015, the Obama administration released the text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, setting up a bitter debate over its provisions next year.
Foremost among the opponents of TPP, organized labor will closely review TPP’s “Chapter 19 – Labour.” The text of chapter 19 attempts to address organized labor's concerns by distinguishing TPP's labor provisions from what the administration now terms, in the summary to TPP’s labor chapter, the "weak" labor agreements and side letters governing enforceable labor standards in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) under the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NALC) and other free trade agreements. In what the administration describes as a "sea change" from NAFTA and other free trade agreements (FTA), it claims that the TPP establishes "a new global norm for labor rights" backed up by dispute settlement procedures and trade sanctions.
The 12 signatory countries to the TPP are Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam. TPP requires these signatory countries to adopt and maintain fundamental labor rights and enforceable labor laws as recognized by the International Labor Organization (ILO). All of these rights and laws are "fully enforceable" and backed by sanctions. That is, all signatory countries must afford their workers the rights set forth in the ILO's "fundamental human rights" standards, including:
TPP also requires signatory countries to adopt and maintain laws on "acceptable conditions of work" including minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health. Signatory countries also commit not to weaken labor laws in export processing zones.
The TPP also requires "historic commitments" from three of the signatory countries—Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam —to undertake significant enumerated legal reforms, which are described as bilateral implementation plans. In the case of Vietnam, for example, this includes allowing Vietnamese workers the right to form and operate unions; for Brunei, it includes "for the first time" implementation of a minimum wage.
It is unlikely that the TPP's labor standards, despite the administration's rhetoric, are sufficient to address organized labor's concerns. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka immediately dismissed the TPP upon the release of its text, stating that together the AFL-CIO would join with its allies to "defeat the TPP." Of course, TPP obligates the United States, as a signatory, to commit to "acceptable" labor standards as well, a point which organized labor will surely highlight as it pushes for increases in the minimum wage, paid family and medical leave, and other "labor law reforms," including ratification of ILO conventions on freedom of association and collective bargaining rights broader than those contained in U.S. labor laws.
Harold P. Coxson is a principal with Ogletree Governmental Affairs Inc., a member of Ogletree Deakins’ traditional labor relations practice group and a shareholder in the Washington, D.C. office of Ogletree Deakins. Republished with permission. © 2015 Ogletree Deakins. All rights reserved.
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