Thursday, September 28, 2006

Agent Orange victims sue US chemical companies

Agent Orange victims sue US chemical companies

Michael Karadjis

Three Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange — the herbicide sprayed over Vietnam by the US military during its war against Vietnam in the 1960s and '70s — are suing more than 20 US chemical companies for compensation.

The three victims — Nguyen Thi Phi Phi, Duong Quynh Hoa and Nguyen Van Quy — and the recently established Vietnam Association for Agent Orange Victims, filed the suit on January 30 with a US federal court in New York. They are seeking compensation from firms which produced the chemical warfare agent, including Monsanto and Dow Chemicals.

The US government sprayed 72 million litres of Agent Orange and other deadly defoliants on Vietnamese forests and farms in a campaign known as Operation Ranch Hand. This was the longest and most destructive chemical war in history. Washington's goal in using Agent Orange was to destroy the jungle cover that Vietnamese resistance fighters used to move around the country and to destroy the crops which fed the guerrillas.

The number of surviving victims of Washington's use of defoliants is estimated to be in the millions. The legacy lives on in children and grandchildren in the form of horrific birth defects. The deadly chemical dioxin present in the defoliants is passed on through blood and breast milk. The water and soil of significant parts of southern Vietnam remain contaminated, spreading cancer and other deadly diseases to residents who drink the water or eat the food grown there.

The Second International Conference on Herbicides in War held in Hanoi in 1993 reported that health problems in humans resulting from exposure to the deadly chemical dioxin in Agent Orange included parentally transmitted diseases, reproductive disorders including birth defects, spontaneous abortion, trophoblastic diseases, cancer and disturbances of the central and peripheral nervous system.

Officially, the US government is “still researching” whether its chemical weapons are responsible for the enormous plague of cancers, deadly diseases and birth deformities present on a massive scale in the regions most affected by the defoliation operations it conducted.

One study found that levels of dioxin in fatty tissues among people living in affected southern regions of Vietnam ranged between 14.7 and 103 parts per trillion, compared to 0.6 parts among those in the north. Another found that 5% of Vietnamese war veterans who had been active in heavily affected areas fathered children with birth defects, compared to only 1% among veterans who had remained in northern Vietnam.

Such “circumstantial” evidence is not enough for the US government, which demands “sound scientific” evidence of a causal connection between defoliants and birth defects. However, Washington has done nothing to help gather such evidence.

Meanwhile, testing is enormously expensive for a poor country like Vietnam. To test a single tissue or soil sample for the presence of dioxin costs around US$1000, and testing just one area would require hundreds or thousands of samples. A thousand dollars for one test is about 100 times the monthly pension the Vietnamese government is able to provide disabled veterans.

The hypocrisy of Washington's position is revealed by the fact that, following several decades of research and campaigning by US veterans' organisations, the US government agreed to compensation for thousands of US vets for diseases such as cancers, sarcomas, skin diseases, Hodgkin's disease and others.

The Vietnamese victims' lawsuit is based on a US federal law allowing foreigners to seek damages for violations of international law, and common laws concerning a company's responsibility for its products.

Other investigations have been underway for some time regarding the possibilities of international legal action against the US government. The UN General Assembly in 1969 declared that the Geneva Protocols outlawing the use of chemical and biological weapons did apply to herbicides, but it was not until April 1975 that the US became a party to this protocol.

In the meantime, the Vietnamese government does what it can to help Agent Orange victims, but most still live in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. A country with a GDP per capita of $410 per annum has to try to provide care for an estimated 5-7 million people living with disabilities, many of them war-related.

Donations to aid Vietnam's Agent Orange victims can be made to the National Fund for Vietnamese Children (35 Tran Phu Street, Hanoi, Vietnam, e-mail: . Account: Vietcombank, 198 Tran Quang Khai Street, Hanoi, Vietnam) or to the Agent Orange Victims Fund (82 Nguyen Du Street, Hanoi, Vietnam. Account: Vietcombank, 23 Phan Chu Trinh Street, Hanoi, Vietnam).

From Green Left Weekly, February 18, 2004

VIETNAM: the terrible legacy of US weapons of mass destruction

VIETNAM: the terrible legacy of US weapons of mass destruction


HANOI — “Several times, a large area was coated white. After a couple of days the leaves in the forest and the gardens turned yellow and fell off." This is how 50-year-old Nguyen Van Loc describes his first vision of a US chemical attack on his village in the central Vietnamese province of Quang Tri during the US war against Vietnam.

For Loc, this vision lives on today not as an unpleasant memory but as daily devastation. His two surviving sons, aged nine and 13, were both born with severe physical deformities and impaired intellects. His eldest son has already died.

They are among the estimated 1 million surviving victims of the longest and most horrific chemical war in history, launched by the United States against the people of southern Vietnam, which Washington claimed to be “saving from communism", between 1961 and 1975.

The US dropped 72 million litres of the deadly defoliant Agent Orange on the south Vietnamese countryside to destroy forests, mangroves and crops. The aim was to crush the peasant resistance fighters of the National Liberation Front, who took cover in the forest, and to destroy the crops of the villagers who supported the resistance fighters.

The legacy of Washington's use of weapons of mass destruction lives on in children and grandchildren. The deadly chemical dioxin present in the defoliants is passed on through blood and breast milk, while the water and soil of significant parts of southern Vietnam remain contaminated, spreading cancer and other deadly diseases to local residents.

The majority of victims are helpless to look after themselves. Mere survival is an enormous, often unsuccessful, struggle. Most victim families are poor, living by working the fields. Often older relatives are needed to guide the children's every movement, as both parents must work. As the children grow up, they are unable to help in the fields.

US `still researching' effects

While the US is gearing up to spend billions of dollars to lay waste to Iraq with its latest weapons of mass destruction — under the guise of safeguarding the world from Iraq's mythical WMD — it has refused to provide a cent to help its Indochinese victims.

Officially, the US is “still researching" whether the chemical weapons it used in Vietnam are responsible for the enormous plague of cancers, other deadly diseases and horrific birth deformities present on a massive scale in the regions most affected by them.

One study found that levels of dioxin in fatty tissues among people living in affected southern regions ranged between 14.7 and 103 parts per trillion, compared to 0.6 among those in northern Vietnam. Another found that 5% of Vietnamese veterans who had been active in heavily affected areas fathered children with birth defects, compared to only 1% among veterans who had remained in the north.

Such “circumstantial" evidence is not enough for the US, which demands “sound scientific" evidence — which it has done nothing to help gather.

Testing is enormously expensive for Vietnam — to test a single tissue or soil sample costs around US$1000, and testing just one area would require hundreds or thousands of samples.

Despite a decade of rapid economic growth and poverty reduction which the United Nations Development Program sees as leading the developing world, Vietnam remains a very poor country, due to 50 years of war, foreign invasion and embargo. $1000 for one test is about 100 times the monthly pension the government provides disabled veterans.

Yet following $200 million in research in the US, and campaigning by US veterans' organisations, Washington agreed to compensation for thousands of US vets. They have qualified for diseases such as cancers, sarcomas, skin diseases, Hodgkin's disease and others. Up to $2000 a month can be awarded. Most US vets served for a year in Vietnam, while Vietnamese veterans and villagers were fully exposed for 10 years to Washington's chemical warfare.

At a recent meeting in Hanoi to launch a campaign to aid victims, long-time Vietnam resident Lady Borton of the American Friends' Service Committee lashed out at this double standard: “The US initiative to require `proof' that Vietnamese are victims of Agent Orange dioxin poisoning is an outrage. It's racist. It's time consuming, expensive and wasteful. We already know toxins cause cancer. We already know toxins cause birth defects. While the US shuns this moral, humanitarian issue, there are families in need."

Borton described her first exposure to the horrors of US chemical warfare, when she visited a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City in 1983 and “saw the specimen room lined floor to ceiling, wall to wall with glass crocks, each containing a molar foetus or a full-term baby with alarming birth defects. The mothers had all come from sprayed areas."

A few years ago, the US periodical Mother Jones, after being refused an interview with the US embassy in Hanoi, submitted eight written questions. The embassy issued “a terse, two-sentence response saying merely that the United States believes the Agent Orange issue should be addressed on a scientific basis". The US ambassador, Pete Peterson, was widely seen among liberal expatriate circles and some NGOs as some kind of “friend of Vietnam", rather than the stooge for imperial malevolence this response reveals him to be.

The US embassy's science and technology officer, Mike Eiland, stated that “Agent Orange is not at the top of our list”, and suggested the periodical instead write a piece on US-Vietnam trade talks or the US soldiers “missing in action”, of whom there remain a couple of thousand. The 300,000 Vietnamese MIAs were, until recently, completely ignored by the US.

Unexploded ordinance

“A 40-year-old man died and his wife were seriously injured in a warhead explosion on October 1 in the central highlands of Gia Lai... Four children were seriously maimed in a B40 warhead explosion on September 21 in the central coastal province of Nha Trang... A 28-year-old woman died and her husband was seriously maimed in a fragmentation bomb explosion on August 26 in the central province of Binh Thuan."

Perhaps the war is still raging? In fact, these reports are from 2002, a mere sprinkling of what is reported in the Vietnamese media every week.

Chemical warfare was only part of the war, during which the US also dropped 15 million tonnes of bombs, three times that dropped in all theatres of World War II.

The legacy of these bombs and chemicals are three million people killed, 25 million bomb craters and the destruction of 2.2 million hectares of forest and half the country's mangroves.

An estimated 250,000 to 750,000 tonnes of ordinance is still lying around the Vietnamese countryside, much of it unexploded, alongside countless millions of land mines, covering 5-10% of the Vietnam's land area. Since the war ended in 1975, 84,000 people have been killed by the US war legacy, often farmers working their fields.

The horrifically bombed central province of Quang Tri was the borderland between Communist-ruled North Vietnam and capitalist-ruled South Vietnam. Millions of unexploded bombs and mines cover 40% of Quang Tri's land area, severely limiting agricultural production in this dirt-poor region where per capita income is $217, half the national average. Three percent of all children in the province have been disabled by exploding ordinance.

Estimates of the number of disabled people in Vietnam range up to 7 million people — 9% of the population. Three million are in dire need of orthopaedic surgery and artificial limbs. They are not all war victims, but the inordinately high numbers reflect the war legacy.

Until recently, the US ignored this legacy as whole-heartedly as its chemical devastation. Following US President Bill Clinton's visit to Vietnam in 2000, a minuscule $3.5 million has been provided by Washington for the removal of unexploded US bombs. This is less than the amount funded by the US Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund in 2001, drawn from donations and sympathetic war veterans themselves, to merely carry out a survey of the problem. The VVMF is also funding a project to raise awareness of the dangers, and to help disabled victims with simple work skills training.

During the recent US war on Afghanistan, much was made of the destruction of the giant Buddha statues by the reactionary Taliban regime. While this was rightly condemned, US outrage was supreme hypocrisy.

During a 1972 offensive to reconquer Quang Tri, which had been liberated by the NLF, the US launched a monstrous attack on the historic palace in the town centre, killing 10,000 defenders and completely destroying the monument — and much of the city. Similar numbers were killed when the US reconquered Hue during the NLF's 1968 Tet offensive, and a similar level of devastation was wreaked on the medieval citadel of the city, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A little further south of Hue stand the ancient ruins of the pre-Vietnamese Cham civilisation in My Son, which has likewise received UNESCO heritage status. This temple complex, the Cham equivalent of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, was the centre of a 1000-year civilisation lasting from the 3rd to the 14th centuries. Dozens of the majestic towers were bombed into rubble by the US war machine.

The `Dien Bien Phu of the sky'

Recently, people in Hanoi commemorated 30 years since one of their darkest moments, the infamous Christmas bombing campaign conducted by the US in December 1972, in order to force the Vietnamese to sign a peace treaty that would leave intact Washington's puppet regime in Saigon.

For 12 days and nights, 1000 fighter-bombers and 200 B-52 heavy bombers dropped 40,000 tonnes of bombs on Hanoi, killing 2368 civilians, destroying 5480 buildings, including houses, factories, schools, hospitals and railway stations.

The Bach Mai hospital, Vietnam's biggest, was bombed, and the main building collapsed, killing medical staff and patients. On December 26, 1972, the densely populated Kham Thien street was carpet bombed, killing 287 people and injuring an equal number, completely destroying everything in the street.

While these events further revealed the barbarity of US imperialism and drove even larger numbers of horrified American civilians into the streets in protest, the incredible Vietnamese fightback was less visible.

The Vietnamese air force, troops and civilians went into action with Russian-supplied surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft guns and MiG-21 fighter planes. Technological dwarfs compared to the high-tech savagery coming from the sky, determination nevertheless paid off.

The legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap, who had led the defeat of French colonialism at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, made a stirring speech calling on the people to “Give the US Air Force a `Dien Bien Phu' right over Hanoi".

And that's what happened. The defenders shot down 81 US warplanes, including 34 B-52s, until then considered invulnerable.

Far from viewing the January 1973 Paris accords as a disastrous compromise imposed on them by the 1972 Christmas bombing campaign, the Vietnamese saw it then, and see it now, as a victory imposed on the US by their resistance. Whatever the text of the accords, the withdrawal of US forces from their country meant a fatal weakening of the puppet regime in Saigon.

Without massive on-the-ground US military backing, the Saigon regime was completely unable to stand up to the resistance movement's offensive in 1975. It took only eight weeks from the launching of that offensive in Vietnam's central highlands to the final victory of the NLF and the Vietnam People's Army on April 30, 1975.


On signing the Paris accords, the US agreed to provide $3.5 billion in reparations — more than $35 billion in today's inflated dollars. It hasn't even come through with a penny.

For years, Western “experts" lamented the economic woes of Vietnam under Communist leadership, and have heralded the economy's rapid growth since the introduction of the “free market” in 1989. Yet few of these “experts" noticed that war and embargo only ended in 1989 — the 1990s were Vietnam's first decade of peace since 1940.

It is incalculable what could be done if such an entirely justifiable, and probably underestimated, reparations bill had been paid. Even a small amount of it could bring about a tremendous difference to the lives of those suffering from US chemical warfare.

“Tran Minh Nguyet sits immobile, her stunted legs hidden by a long shirt", according to Vietnam News. “Her young brother is lost in his own world, oblivious of what is going on around him." When Dr Nhan from the Hue Medical School, which raises funds from foreign donations, brought her a wheelchair, “her face turned radiant. `Now I can help my father', she says. Like other children with disabilities, she wants desperately to feel useful."

A simple wheelchair may not seem much, but providing wheelchairs for hundreds of thousands of injured people is well beyond the Vietnamese government's means. It does what it can — various treatment and rehabilitation programs, ``peace villages'' for many affected children to help them adapt, some interest-free loans, orphanages and US$7 a month for each affected person.

The US, however, has its priorities elsewhere — wreaking devastation on a country already reduced to food rationing by a 12-year-old trade blockade.

If it seems inexplicable to many people why the US would be gearing up to murder hundreds of thousands more people in Iraq, then perhaps a desperate desire to reverse the long-term restrictions on its global power caused by the defeat the Vietnamese workers and peasants inflicted on it in 1975 is part of the answer.

[Donations to aid Vietnam's Agent Orange victims can be made to the National Fund for Vietnamese Children, 35 Tran Phu Street, Hanoi, Vietnam; email: ; account Vietcombank, 198 Tran Quang Khai Street, Hanoi, Vietnam; or, Agent Orange Victims Fund, 82 Nguyen Du Street, Hanoi, Vietnam, account Vietcombank, 23 Phan Chu Trinh Street, Hanoi, Vietnam.]

From Green Left Weekly, March 12, 2003

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Unions fight to restrain `market forces'

Unions fight to restrain `market forces'


Headlines such as “Workers strike against impossible quotas” and “Wildcat strike forces workplace reforms” abound in the Vietnamese media. They not only indicate the proliferation of labour struggles, but also the unabashed sympathy of the state-controlled media with the workers.

Speaking about the hundreds of strikes in Vietnam in recent years, Chau Nhat Binh, head of the international relations division in the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL), noted that “almost every strike has been technically illegal”, as it didn't follow the lengthy procedures in the labour law. Nevertheless, the VGCL regards “every one” of these technically illegal strikes to be justified.

In Vietnam's precarious balance between mobilising private and foreign capital to help develop the war-ruined country and trying to maintain a dominant state-owned sector and a “socialist orientation”, the role of organised labour is crucial in stopping “market forces” from undermining labour standards.

The “market mechanism” has certainly challenged such standards. Yet while Vietnamese trade unions resolutely denounce bosses who abuse workers' rights, they almost never initiate strikes.


Virtually every strike has been a “wildcat” action led by spontaneous workers' committees. Binh explains that it is often difficult to get union members in privately owned factories because many workers are from rural areas, intending to work temporarily during the “down season” between sowing and harvest. They have no culture of unionism, don't want to fork out for union dues and don't want to lose wages through strikes.

But union membership grows due to experience — these workers find they are brutally exploited and so launch wildcat strikes without the unions. Even when unions are present, the official procedures would delay the strike. Yet, though seemingly sidelined, the union intervenes and forces the bosses to submit to the workers' demands — “in 100% of cases”, according to Binh. In this process, the union recruits the workers.

These strikes belie hopes among capitalist investors that rural migrants are easily exploited. A factor in this may be that most rural migrants still have some land due to past revolutionary land reforms.

Binh's claim is backed by countless reports in the media, which routinely report the intervention of the district labour federation, the local branch of the labour ministry and the police to force bosses to relent to the workers' demands.

The evidence of this is also backed by a more hostile source — the US commerce department. A 2002 US commerce department report (available at ) noted that “although the majority of the strikes did not follow proper legal procedures, they were tolerated by the government with no reports of retribution against the strikers”.

State proclivities also tend to aid victory for workers. The report claimed that “labor rights sentiments in Vietnam are backed by a conciliation system and a judiciary sympathetic to labor demands”.

Binh admits that the VGCL at times has conflicting views on labour issues with the government, but claims the government is generally supportive. He claimed globalisation may promote a “race to the bottom” in terms of wages and conditions, but the Vietnamese unions were not worried about this because they are confident about fighting its negative impacts.

The VGCL “refuses to accept investment under any conditions”, said Binh. It sometimes expels companies from the country. He claims that union actions in the late 1990s have even tamed the rogue footwear company Nike.

Not everything goes their way — recent amendments extended maximum overtime allowed from 200 to 300 hours per year, capitulating to lobbying by foreign investors, despite the VGCL's objections. However, this is far less than what the bosses wanted, and they have to go through detailed procedures to prove the necessity of overtime above 200 hours.

Contrast with China

The Vietnamese government sees the role of Communist Party cadres in unions as defending workers from the ravages of its own “market” policies. The labour code allows the right to strike and the spontaneous formation of new unions — at variance with the situation in neighbouring China.

This contrast was shown in a March 2003 report by Anita Chan and Hong-zen Wang into Taiwanese bosses in China and Vietnam (“Raising Labor Standards, Corporate Social Responsibility and Missing Links — Vietnam and China Compared”, available at < href="">).

Chan and Wang found that, while Taiwanese employers expected Vietnamese workers to be easier to deal with than mainland Chinese workers since Vietnam is a poorer country, the reverse was true. The bosses “observed repeatedly that they had to abide by the law” in Vietnam, and “were surprisingly frank about the harsh management methods they personally had used in China”.

One Taiwanese boss complained: “You can't even touch the Vietnamese workers, let alone abuse them. In China, physical punishments were very common, including even hitting, like in the military.”

Another claimed the problem with Vietnamese workers was that “their human rights awareness is very high. Taiwanese have to face a lot of labour disturbances and strikes. They easily stage mass protests. Their labour and democratic consciousness is very high... This is not just a problem at my factory, this is a problem of the entire society. In Vietnam their protection of labour rights is too stringent.”

Regarding overtime, Vietnamese workers said they wanted one day off a week and an absolute maximum of 12 hours overtime. “If the managers pushed them too far, they indicated they would just go on strike”, Chan and Wang reported.

By contrast, “in China, during busy seasons workers often work for a few months without any days off ... a survey of China's footwear industry found that in Taiwanese enterprises, the average number of work hours was 11 hours each day ... (in) the export toy industry in Guangdong in the busy season workers laboured for up to 14-18 hours with no days off.”

A fundamental difference is the attitude of the governments. A supervisor from China trained by the Taiwanese to work in Vietnam claimed that “Chinese workers' conditions are more miserable than the Vietnamese, whose rights are better protected. Why is there such a difference? The government. The Chinese government wants to make money and therefore just neglects workers' rights.”

State-owned enterprises

While most reports are about labour activity in private and foreign companies, Binh claims 30% of strikes take place in state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Overall, however, SOE wages and conditions for manual workers are far ahead of those in the other sectors.

In the garment industry, for example, average wages in SOEs are around one-third higher than in the other sectors. While almost 90% of workers in SOEs have labour contracts, only 40% do in private enterprises. While workplace accidents have declined in SOEs, they have risen between 18% and 31% in private enterprises.

What attitude does the VGCL take towards “equitisation”, the partial rivatisation of a portion of the state sector, either to rescue debt-ridden SOEs, relieve the state of control of smaller firms, or inject private capital to improve “efficiency”?

Binh said the VGCL views equitisation as a “dilemma”. In economically weak SOEs, it injects more investment funds, so profits rise and so do wages. But this depends on the percentage of private and state investment and the position of workers within the process.

Binh claims that despite the regulations and official limitations on the size of private shareholdings, “most equitised enterprises end up more in private than in state hands. There have been coups d'etat when private interests seize management from workers — workers are given shares, but in many cases, management buys them all out shortly after equitisation”, though it is officially frowned upon and technically illegal.

Therefore, trade unions “are very cautious about equitisation and opposed to doing anything without clear planning”. In fact, there is evidence that workers are having some influence in keeping the process on hold, despite Binh's negative examples.

There is much hype about equitised enterprises paying higher wages or not laying off workers. However, this is because equitisation has so far succeeded mainly in enterprises where it would not affect workers' jobs. The World Bank is bemoaning the “slowness'” of the equitisation process — it is years behind schedule.

A survey of equitised enterprises found that 83% were paying higher salaries, but that the old management “have not adapted their business philosophies and have failed to renovate the operations of their enterprises”. Translated from “reform”-speak, Chu Hoang Anh from the labour ministry said that “if an enterprise wants to make big changes, they have to convince workers to change or nullify their labour contracts. This is not easily accepted by employees.” Thus it seems if workers don't agree, it won't happen.

From Green Left Weekly, December 10, 2003.

VIETNAM: `Not a market economy country'

VIETNAM: `Not a market economy country'


HANOI — The United States Department of Commerce (DoC) ruled on January 24 that Vietnam is “dumping” catfish on the US market. The ruling was based on a decision made by the commerce department last November that Vietnam is “not a market economy country” for the purposes of trade with the US.

The DoC's decision could lead to punitive tariffs of 64% against Vietnam's frozen fish exports to the US. The livelihoods of 400,000 Vietnamese farmers and thousands of workers involved in fish processing factories could be jeopardised by such punitive tariffs.

The ruling is surprising given that over the last decade Vietnam has allowed the growth of domestically-owned capitalist businesses, opened up to foreign capitalist investors, decollectivised farming and allowed most domestic prices to be market-determined.

Two years ago the US and Vietnamese governments signed a bilateral trade agreement in which Vietnam agreed to accept many of the “market economy” conditions for foreign trade set out by the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

What then could the DoC be up to?

The January 24 DoC ruling was in response to an “anti-dumping" suit launched by Catfish Farmers of America (CFA), which alleged that imports of Vietnamese catfish were being subsidised and sold in the US below the cost of production.

Anyone familiar with how rich countries manipulate “free trade” will recognise this as a typical case of how these countries can pay lawyers to launch spurious lawsuits which cause huge losses to farmers in poor countries.

Vietnam simply cannot afford to subsidise exports, and Vietnamese farmers (earning an average of US$35-50 per month) are simply too poor to sell below cost price to break into an overseas market. But with such low labour costs, the sale price of Vietnamese farmers' produce is correspondingly low.

Trade liberalisation theorists assert that countries should export whatever they can sell more cheaply, anywhere in the world. Their theory of “comparative advantage” crashes when a poor country manages to break through the monopolisation of rich-country markets by held by Western industrial, agribusiness and trading cartels. When that happens, “free market” theory goes out the window and the Western monopolies bring in their highly paid lawyers.

CFA first launched an unsuccessful “sanitary" case against Vietnamese catfish imports. Even the US embassy in Hanoi has substantiated the fact that growing conditions for catfish in Vietnam are hygienic; catfish farmers use traditional methods.

CFA then banned Vietnamese farmers using the term “catfish” for their catfish exports to the US, forcing them to re-label the product as Tra and Basa. Finally, CFA launched the anti-dumping suit.


Despite its ruling, the DoC knows there are no Vietnamese government subsidies on catfish exports. But, as aim of the DoC is to protect the profits of US agribusiness, it dug up the WTO guidebook on swindling and found that if you call a country a “non-market economy country”, then the sale price of an export from that country can be assumed to be lower due to alleged “distortions” in its overall economic structure. No proof of government subsidies is required.

While catfish farming is a traditional occupation in Vietnam, since the country began exporting catfish to the US the quantity of catfish farmed has risen from 2000 tons in 1998 to 60,000 tons in 2001, with large amounts of land previously used for rice farming being converted to catfish production.

Catfish farming relies on huge inputs of animal feed. Not surprisingly, US animal feed and agricultural trade corporation Cargill has been a major pusher of the expansion of Vietnamese catfish farming, organising credit for fish cages in the Mekong River delta.

If the DoC imposes punitive tariffs on Vietnamese catfish exports to the US such that these exports decline, Cargill will simply sell more animal feed to US catfish producers instead of to Vietnamese farmers, large numbers of whom will be burdened for years with their debts to Cargill.

The same scenario is now occurring with shrimp. In October, the Shrimp Importation Financing Fairness Act was introduced into the US Congress, accusing Vietnam, Thailand, China, Indonesia, India, Mexico and Ecuador of dumping prawns, and demanding these countries reduce their prawn exports to the US to 4.8 million kilograms per month.

In addition, fierce competition and increased supply from European countries reduced world shrimp prices by 20-30% in 2002. While Vietnam's shrimp exports rose by 10.7% in the first half of 2002, the earnings from these exports rose only 4.4%.

Vietnam is currently undertaking a massive expansion of shrimp production for export. The wisedom of this strategy is open to question, given the catastrophic environmental and disease problems familiar to other countries which have gone heavily into shrimp production. Uncultivable saline wastelands and thousands of heavily indebted, landless farmers have often been the result of unsustainable production in vain attempts to help farmers “escape poverty" by investing in “higher value crops".

High-value export crops

Yet poor countries often have little choice about entering high risk areas and pushing them to unsustainable levels — they need the export income to pay for increasingly expensive imports of industrial products from rich countries. Such imports are turning into a flood as tariffs, quotas and other trade barriers, erected by underdeveloped countries to protect nascent industries, are being torn down under the pressure of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and WTO entry conditions.

Ironically, poor countries are also being flooded by certain agricultural imports, where rich country agribusinesses have grain surpluses. Large US catfish farmers claim to be protecting their own livelihood from cheap imports, even though Vietnamese catfish accounts for only 2% of the US market. Yet such protection measures are banned for poor countries.

According to Professor Vo Tong Xuan from An Giang University, when US maize and soybean arrive in Vietnam under its bilateral trade agreement with the US, local farmers will be wiped out, as subsidised US prices are up to half the current price in Vietnam. The US government provides hundreds of billions of dollars in export subsidies to rich farmers, but Vietnam cannot afford to sue Washington for “dumping”.

To pay for these imports, even more export crops are needed, of whatever the West currently does not produce — coffee yesterday, shrimp today — until competition among poor countries to pump out as much as possible sends the corporate-controlled “world price” tumbling.

Vietnam's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has admitted in a recent major report that coffee-centred trade liberalisation in the Central Highlands has caused a “great shock" to the region, particularly to the poor and the ethnic minorities, following the massive crash in coffee prices in the late 1990s.

Vietnam has been cautious about trade liberalisation, but has not been able to avoid it. The trade agreement with the US, the Asia Free Trade Area (AFTA) requirements and World Bank conditions attached to a current Comprehensive Poverty Reduction and Growth Strategy all mean further trade liberalisation.

The government has wisely delayed for six months massive tariff cuts, due this month, on 96% of imports from Asian countries under AFTA, but it cannot escape for long, and is now talking of early entry into the WTO.

Limited privatisation

Is the “non-market" label then purely an excuse for US protectionism or does Washington have more fundamental problems with Vietnam's trade liberalisation process?

According to the DoC: “The department recognises that the government of Vietnam has taken substantial steps to open its market to the international community and to allow limited forces of supply and demand affect the development of its economy. The government has promulgated many positive legal reforms that have led to the marked and sustained growth of the private sector.

“However, the level of government intervention in the economy is still such that prices and costs are not a meaningful measure of value. The Vietnamese currency, the dong, is not fully convertible, with significant restrictions on its use, transfer, and exchange rate. Foreign direct investment is encouraged, but the government still seeks to direct and control it through regulation. Although prices have been liberalised for the most part, the government pricing committee continues to maintain discretionary control over prices in (certain) sectors.

“Privatisation of state-owned enterprises and the state-dominated banking sector has been slow, thereby insulating the state sector from competition. Finally, private land ownership is not allowed and the government is not initiating a land privatisation program.”

What the DoC really objects to is not so much the low prices of Vietnamese catfish exports, but that Vietnam has used a number of mechanisms to maintain public control over its economy. Government-owned enterprises remain dominant in the “commanding heights" of the economy — heavy industry, banking and foreign trade in strategic goods.

Foreign investment is directed by the government into promoting industrial development and into joint ventures with the state sector; price subsidies are maintained on some basic goods to keep them affordable to poor people; government control is maintained over the currency, which helped save Vietnam from the 1997 Asian financial crisis and economic collapse.

Agricultural land is state-owned, with farmers leasing renewable and inheritable titles for 20 years, helping prevent the large-scale land concentration and landlessness afflicting most of the underdeveloped world (where “full” private ownership of land means the “full” right of farmers to lose the land they work on). Moreover, the government is making a renewed push to encourage farmers to set up voluntary cooperatives.

Just in case Vietnam thought it had a sovereign right to freely choose such an economic direction, the US government has just given it a reminder of who makes the rules that govern “free trade” in today's world.

From Green Left Weekly, February 12, 2003.