You down with TPP?

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Calvin reckons the trade deal would merely turn Vietnam's rice farmers into wage slaves

Farmers take a break from harvesting rice at a paddy field in Ha Hoi village, 20 km (12.5 miles) south of Hanoi. Turning a rice farmer into the wage slave of an international conglomerate with one eye on the door doesn't sound like much of a plan for the future. PHOTO: REUTERS

In recent weeks, this paper has carried stories expressing the ambivalence of Vietnamese firms toward the impending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)"”a twelve-nation, "no-Chinas-allowed" trade agreement that is being negotiated in secret.

Though the TPP has been in the works for years, Obama says he wants to get it done by the end of the year.

And some people are real scared about it.


Last month, noted rich person Michael Bloomberg published an editorial in the New York Times warning that the TPP could (among other things) unravel the millions of dollars he spent on anti-smoking lobbying in Vietnam.

(Don't worry smokers. I'm sure you'll still be able to light up in elevators here, no matter what happens.)

Generally speaking though, everyone has been left to guess what the TPP will mean for their own country's ability to pass public health and consumer protection laws.

Many fear, for instance, that the TPP would render American quality control inspections an "illegal trade barrier."

Others believe it could have the power to improve quality control.

Last year, a trio of concerned Congresspersons wrote a letter to Obama and Team TPP asking them to force exporters to meet America's standards. The letter noted that Vietnamese shrimp and fish shipments were turned back 206 times in 2012"”a year when inspectors looked at just one percent of imports"”and asked them to take necessary steps to protect consumers.

Similar alarm bells have been rung about vague plans to enact strict intellectual property standards and internet use restrictions.

Ultimately, though, no one beyond the secret negotiating tables knows what will really happen. However, not knowing much about the potential impact of the TPP hasn't stopped people from writing about it.

Much has also been made about America's "yarn forward" stipulation, which eliminates tariffs that are entirely made inside the partnership's 12 member states.

Proponents of the agreement say "yarn forward" will give manufacturers working in the 12 TPP member states a toll-free ride into American malls so long as every stitch and cog in their products has been produced inside the TPP (i.e. not in China). If a hundred or so things don't happen (e.g. China joins the TPP) one projection has it that Vietnam will boost its exports by as much as 28 percent by 2025 under the TPP.

This boost is expected to come from mega-manufacturers relocating shoe and clothing factories from China to Vietnam"”particularly as the appeal of low-wage, foreign-owned factories becomes increasingly passé in the People's Republic.

Some commentators have charged that "yarn forward" amounts to nothing but a grand protectionist-colonialist scheme designed to force Asian factory owners to buy American textiles and pay poor Vietnamese people to turn them into cheap shoes and clothes.

An independent journalist named Greg Rushford recently alleged that Obama's secret strategy will prop up uncompetitive textile mills in the American South while offering little to no tariff concessions to the likes of Vietnam.

Proponents of the TPP have countered that this is simply not the case"”especially if Vietnam starts making its thread, fabric and doo-dads instead of importing them.

That's a big "if."  State-owned shoe (VINTAS) and clothing (VINATEX) makers dropped the ball on creating a local supply chain five years ago, when they announced that Vietnam would manufacture 60 percent of its shoe and apparel components by 2015.

Today, about 75 percent of every shoe and shirt made in Vietnam is sewn out of imported components.

Rumor has it that Vietnam may get a three-year grace period to wean itself off of, say, cheap Chinese zippers. But, so far, there are no signs anyone local is building a zipper factory.

Instead, Japanese, Australian, South Korean and Taiwanese corporations are pumping billions into developing thread, yarn and fabric factories here.

Which begs the question: what benefit will the TPP really bring the average Vietnamese person?

Turning a rice farmer into the wage slave of an international conglomerate with one eye on the door doesn't sound like much of a plan for the future.

But it would appear as though it's the only plan Vietnam's got.

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