A questionable success

I’m not sure Vietnam won’t live to regret this:

The leader of Vietnam’s Farmers’ Union, Vu Ngoc Ky, has published hundreds of poems. On the day I interviewed him, he had just finished another, written in honour of his staff.

In it, he calls on farmers to make the country rich, so it can catch up with the rest of the world.

This is the dominant feeling among Vietnamese officials and business people: that war and economic sanctions held the country back for half a century and now it’s time to catch up with the Asian tigers.

That is why they want to join the WTO.

But unusually for a senior Vietnamese official, Vu Ngoc Ky is candid about the downside.

He says a third of the country’s farmers could lose their jobs as a result of modernisation and competition from imports.

“At the moment, we have 32 million rural labourers, and we can say about 10 million of them are underemployed,” he says.

“So the most important thing now is to provide training for them so they have better skills, which will satisfy the requirements of the service industries.”

Some farmers – particularly rice exporters – should gain from WTO membership. But livestock farmers will face tough competition from Europe, the US and Australia – and few are well-prepared.

Nguyen Duc Tu herds cattle a few minutes walk from the international convention centre, which will host the Asia-Pacific summit next week.

“I’ve heard about the WTO, but I think that it’s government business and I’m just a farmer,” he says.

Those who lobbied for Vietnam to be okayed, or rather KOed, by the WTO are counting on just such innocence in the unsuspecting farmers. Lambs for the slaughter mustn’t know what a fleecing they’re in for, you see.

Vietnam is already a major garment and textile exporter (this is its predominant source of foreign trade), so this won’t make much difference to that sector. Labor there is already pretty close to rock-bottom in terms of wages. Check your closet; if anything in there says “Made in Vietnam”, you probably know–or SHOULD–that most of what you paid for that did NOT land in the pockets of a garment worker. In fact, the bulk of that money probably never made it any closer to Vietnam than, say, an offshore bank in the Caiman Islands. You may feel a twinge of guilt, combined with dreary inevitability; you’re not making enough to buy goods made here under better conditions. But you bought it anyway; such are the vagaries of the global market.

The extreme irony of the situation is that we’re being sold on such dubious notions with grand talk of “greater choice” and “freedom” and all that cal; meanwhile, most of us are finding our choices drastically curtailed by the fact that we have less cash to spend than ever before. (Was your job outsourced? Thank the WTO, it was probably behind that. Opening markets to other countries so their workers too can earn less–how altruistic of them!)

The upshot? You’re buying something made for near-slave wages in a country where life and labor are both held cheap. This rather puts the lie to the insistence that “market reform” results in any political gains in countries where it’s rammed through. Hell, what’s it ever done for YOU–really? Cut your wages and benefits, and lengthened your hours, most likely; also, increased your job stress, upped your dosage of ulcer or blood-pressure medication, etc., etc. ad nauseam. Hasn’t it? I bet it has!

But spare a thought anyway for Vietnamese farmers, who until now have been somewhat shielded from the ravages of the market, and are about to feel it in a BIG way. They’re already scratching for a living, and the recent bird-flu outbreaks haven’t done them any favors. Their big entree into the global markets could so easily go bust on a dime–if not through bird flu, then foot-and-mouth disease in their cattle, or another flu strain in pigs, or failure of the rice crop. Their lives are so precarious as it is; they’re not ready for this. And now there is one more layer of fuckery-from-above coming down on them. And they don’t have the clout of an agricultural powerhouse like India to demand more fairness, either. (BTW, India still lost out.) Therefore, I doubt many of them will be rejoicing of their admission to the WTO anytime soon, if ever.

But hey, at least one PNAC thug should be pleased. Rejoice for the charming Robert Zoellick, folks–at least until someone calls for his ugly head on a pikestaff. Which might be the beginnings of a fair trade for many years of grief brought on by “free” trade.

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