The Chicago-based apparel firm Hart Schaffner Marx, its factory workers and their union say they will collectively fight against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement that is currently under negotiations.
In its current form, the agreement will cause serious damage to the U.S. clothing industry and exacerbate poor working conditions in other countries, according to the more than 100 apparel workers and their supporters who rallied Wednesday morning outside Hart Schaffner Marx’s DesPlaines suit factory.
“Hundreds of thousands of workers have lost their jobs as factories shut down due to unfair competition from manufacturers in countries that have very low wages and very dangerous working conditions,” said Kathy Hanshew, chief of staff of the Chicago and Midwest Regional Joint Board (CMRJB) of Workers United, an SEIU* affiliate. “TPP will encourage the expansion of these abuses on workers all over the world.”
In addition to the United States, the countries involved with the TPP free trade agreement include: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Darussalam, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. The agreement has been in negotiations since 2008, and the White House wants to have the talks concluded by the end of the year.
The Obama administration has touted TPP as a 21st century-style, Asia-Pacific trade agreement that will “enhance trade and investment among the TPP partner countries, promote innovation, economic growth and development, and support the creation and retention of jobs.”
But critics of TPP, including U.S. Rep Jan Schakowsky (D, IL-9) who joined the workers at Wednesday’s rally, said the contents of the agreement have largely been kept secret, despite calls for more transparency.
“We’ve seen leaks and speculation, but that is not a substitute for meaningful discussion about it,” Schakowsky said. “This agreement could impact millions of American workers and have massive repercussions throughout the country, and you haven’t seen it, and I haven’t seen it.”
The congresswoman added that she’s concerned the agreement is “being written by big corporations”, as some 600 corporate advisors reportedly have access to the text.
International Vice President of Workers United Richard Monje called it “criminal” that American jobs are being "negotiated away" behind closed doors.
“It is wrong that they take away the very fabric, the very core of what we have battled to maintain here [at Hart Schaffner Marx] over 100 years,” Monje told the workers.
Schakowsky acknowledged the need for a new trade model, but not “another job killing NAFTA-style trade deal.”
“What we’ve seen so far, TPP looks to be somewhere in between more of the same or even worse,” the congresswoman added.
The agreement is particularly troubling for domestic apparel manufacturers and workers, the group said, because the agreement threatens the long-standing "yarn forward" rule of origin. The rule requires that every stage of a garment’s production must take place within the country that is receiving the trade preference or benefit.
If the United States loosens up those rules of origin for textiles in the final agreement, TPP countries would be able to “flood the U.S. market with duty-free imports,” Schakowsky said. This would jeopardize tens of thousands of U.S. jobs associated with yarn, fabrics and apparel manufacturing, the congresswoman stressed.
A handful of American apparel firms, including Hart Schaffner Marx, and labor unions sent a letter to United States Trade Representative Michael Froman on July 30 detailing their concerns about the agreement. According to their letter, the trade agreement includes 185 apparel and textile exceptions from the general rules of origin.
“It is disappointing to find a U.S. position that not only fails to promote American textile and apparel manufacturing, but actually threatens its viability,” the letter reads. “Our position is further supported by claims by the Vietnamese apparel manufacturers that TPP will increase their apparel exports by billions of dollars annually. Unfortunately their gain will be at the direct expense of American factory workers and manufacturers."
Ruby Leung, an immigrant from Hong Kong, has worked at Hart Schaffner Marx's DesPlaines factory for 34 years. The job has become a "stabilized source of income" for her, she said. But Leung said she's worried that the TPP agreement will have a drastic impact on her and the other workers’ earnings, benefits and medical insurance.
The DesPlaines factory workers, and other textile employees across the country, are already struggling to keep their current benefits and wages, said Ruby Sims, who's worked at the Hart Schaffner Marx facility for 36 years.
“It’s a fight after fight,” she said. “We have been through [so] much. We don’t need a trade agreement that’s going to hurt us anymore.”
Schakowsky said the group will not support any trade agreement that continues to outsource U.S. jobs, gut American manufacturing and undermine critical consumer protections.
“We will not trade away our labor protections, our environmental regulations or our government’s ability to invest in U.S. companies,” the congresswoman said. “Trade can make us stronger if it is done right. We are for fair trade, not just some sort of agreement written by big corporations.”
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