By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and Vietnam have agreed to intensify talks on a regional free-trade agreement in hopes of finishing by the end of the year, the U.S. Trade Representative's Office said on Wednesday, following a call by labor and human rights groups for negotiations with Hanoi to be suspended.
"Vietnam has come a long way in addressing its own challenges to meet the high standards of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), but we still have work to do together," USTR Michael Froman said in a statement after a meeting with Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang.
Froman's remark came shortly after a coalition of labor and human rights groups urged President Barack Obama on Wednesday to suspend free-trade negotiations with Vietnam because of concerns over that country's treatment of workers and people who criticize the government.
"President Obama must hold Vietnam accountable for its record on worker and human rights before America rewards the country with greater trading privileges," Teamsters union President James Hoffa said in a statement.
The demand came on the eve of a White House meeting between Obama and the Vietnamese president, and as the 18th round of regional free-trade talks among the United States, Vietnam and nine other countries were wrapping up in Malaysia. Japan joined this week as the 12th country in the talks.
The Obama administration hopes to finish those talks on the proposed TPP by the end of the year, and the concerns raised by the Teamsters, the Citizens Trade Coalition and Human Rights Watch were a preview of the likely debate in Congress over the agreement.
They highlighted a report by the Worker Rights Consortium, a group of university administrators, students and other advocates that monitors working conditions in foreign countries.
It describes cases of forced labor and child labor, pregnancy and gender-based discrimination, health and safety hazards and excessive working hours and inadequate wages that the groups said Vietnam should be required to correct before striking a free-trade deal with the United States.
In addition, Vietnam has jailed an increasing number of dissidents, bloggers and religious leaders in recent years, holding them for long periods without access to family or legal counsel and often subject to torture or other mistreatment, Human Rights Watch said in a recent release.
Democratic Representative George Miller said in a letter to Froman that the WRC report showed, "Export industry workers in Vietnam ... are routinely denied the basic labor standards that the United States requires from its trading partners."
He stopped short of asking for talks with Vietnam to be suspended, but pressed Froman to explain "what steps the administration is willing to take to ensure that Vietnam is able to comply" with labor provisions established by a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers in 2007 for trade agreements.
The 12 TPP countries are negotiating commitments to protect workers and the environment as part of the trade pact, but critics fear they will not be subject to the same enforcement rules as business provisions.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Peter Cooney)