WASHINGTON U.S. trade negotiators must insist on tough standards on human and workers' rights in a Pacific trade deal spanning 12 countries, more than 150 Democratic lawmakers said in a letter to the Obama administration on Thursday.
The lawmakers, who make up three-quarters of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, urged U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman to do more to protect workers and labor standards in the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
As well as cutting tariffs, the TPP seeks to set common standards on issues like intellectual property and labor - an issue which is particularly problematic in Vietnam, which the U.S. Labor Department says uses child and forced labor.
Froman has said negotiating a trade deal with countries like Vietnam is the best way to force progress on issues such as labor rights.
The 153 lawmakers from U.S. President Barack Obama's party pointed to media reports that Vietnam would not accept a rule allowing workers to establish independent labor unions, preferring a compromise devolving some power to local unions.
There were also concerns about Malaysia and Brunei, for example about freedom of association, and unrepresentative unions in Mexico.
"These issues must be addressed in a serious and meaningful way in order for the TPP to move forward," said the letter, signed by the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, Sander Levin.
"The administration must refrain from validating such woefully inadequate labor norms and the final agreement should be withheld until these countries embrace the need to reform their labor laws and move aggressively to implement them."
A USTR spokesman said the office was pursuing provisions to improve workers' conditions and rights.
“We have been absolutely clear that TPP must include strong, enforceable protections for workers at the core of the agreement," he said.
(Reporting by Krista Hughes; Editing by Eric Walsh)