CUMBERLAND — You can’t spend long looking to buy a new shirt, jeans or tennis shoes without reading “Made in Vietnam” on the label. And many of the clothes manufactured in that country’s huge apparel industry are made by companies licensed to produce clothing with college and university logos.
Teamsters union President James P. Hoffa, along with human rights leaders, say there’s a bleak reality behind imported clothing: Forced labor, child labor and gender discrimination, among other issues. And Vietnamese workers have no ability to organize independent unions, according to “Made in Vietnam,” a report issued by the Worker Rights Consortium.
“They should be held accountable for their labor and human rights violations,” Hoffa said. The situations that led to the death of more than 1,000 workers in a building collapse at a Bangladesh factory are not unique to that country, Hoffa said.
“The same thing is going on in Vietnam,” Hoffa said in a Wednesday conference call from Washington.
The report on Vietnam was issued in tandem with a conference call including Hoffa, Scott Nova, the executive director of the consortium, and John Sifton, the Asian advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. The call took place on the eve of Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang’s visit with President Barack Obama. Among the topics expected to be discussed by the two leaders are negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, essentially a package of free trade agreements between various nations, including the U.S., Canada and Australia, and Asian nations.
“The situation we found can only be described as grim,” Nova said. The U.S. Department of Labor has Vietnam on a list of countries that use child labor, Nova said. Children from rural communities are often purchased from their parents and shipped to work in urban factories, Nova said.
Hoffa and the human rights leaders want negotiations with Vietnam on the TPP suspended until human rights and labor conditions improve.
“If they’re going to join the TPP, they have to meet certain standards. ... Vietnam should not be rewarded for its bad behavior,” Hoffa said. Hoffa said he was urging Obama to bring up the labor and human rights issues and have a frank discussion with the Vietnamese president.
Monitoring the labor situation in Vietnam is difficult because there are no independent labor organizations and activists can face long prison sentences, Nova said. Recently, organizers of a strike in Vietnam were sentenced to seven- to 10-year prison terms, Nova said. Conditions set for women employees often include a requirement they not become pregnant for at least three years, Nova said.
“Made in Vietnam is largely synonymous with sweatshop labor,” Nova said.
Sifton said he hopes Obama will use the trade negotiations as leverage on human rights issues.
The trade relationship between the two countries is extensive.
“Vietnam is currently our 29th largest goods trading partner with $24.9 billion in total (two ways) goods trade during 2012. Goods exports totaled $4.6 billion; goods imports totaled $20.3 billion. The U.S. good trade deficit with Vietnam was $15.6 billion in 2012,” according to the Office of the U.S. Trade representative.
“U.S. goods imports from Vietnam totaled $20.3 billion in 2012, a 15.9 percent increase ($2.8 billion) from 2011. The top imports categories ... for 2012 were: knit apparel ($4.1 billion), woven apparel ($2.9 billion), footwear ($2.4 billion), furniture and bedding ($2.3 billion), and electrical machinery ($1.4 billion),” according to the trade representative website.
Nova said he hopes colleges and universities, especially those affiliated with his organization, will pressure suppliers to improve labor conditions in Vietnam. Vietnam is now the second largest producer of licensed college and university apparel, Nova said.
A request for comment made to the embassy of Vietnam received no response by press time.
The website of the Worker Rights Consortium may be found at www.workersrights. org/.
The Teamster’s website is www.teamster.org/.
Information on the TPP is available at www.ustr.gov/ tpp.
Contact Matthew Bieniek at firstname.lastname@example.org.