Friday, March 7, 2014
WASHINGTON - For the second time in less than a year, the Obama administration's top trade official will visit this week with factory workers in the small central Maine town of Norridgewock.
Justin Waring lays soles on shoes at the New Balance factory in Norridgewock in 2011. U.S. Trade Ambassador Michael Froman will visit New Balance's Norridgewock factory this week.
2011 File Photo/Shawn Patrick Ouellette
The topic: Maine's (and the United States') potentially fragile foothold in the athletic footwear business.
U.S. Trade Ambassador Michael Froman's visit to New Balance's Norridgewock factory -- one of three New Balance facilities in Maine employing 900 people -- comes at a critical juncture in U.S. negotiations with nearly a dozen nations on a new free-trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Froman's predecessor, Ron Kirk, visited the factory last September.
Froman's trip to Maine also comes less than one week after workers' rights groups and a major U.S. union raised concerns about labor conditions in Vietnam, the country at the heart of the concerns among New Balance employees.
At their core, free-trade deals are about eliminating "barriers" to exports and imports between nations, which often means phasing out U.S. tariffs on foreign imports.
The United States currently imposes a tariff -- essentially an import tax -- on footwear imported from Vietnam. Officials at Boston-based New Balance, as well as members of Maine's congressional delegation, warn that eliminating those tariffs could endanger the few remaining sneaker factories in the United States.
Froman is slated to tour the factory Monday with 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and Sen. Angus King before answering questions from workers. Last year, Kirk assured workers the administration was carefully considering impacts on U.S. athletic footwear manufacturers as it negotiates on the TPP. This year, King helped secure a pledge from Froman to visit Maine after placing a hold on his nomination to succeed Kirk.
One issue that may come up Monday -- in addition to the wage differential between Maine and Vietnam -- is working conditions in Vietnamese factories.
Last week, the organization Worker Rights Consortium and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters called on the Obama administration to suspend talks with Vietnam over concerns about labor conditions and worker rights. A report by the Worker Rights Consortium accused factory owners of forced labor, child labor, discrimination against female workers, unsafe working conditions, inadequate wages and of working with the Vietnamese government to squash attempts at forming independent unions.
Some of the most egregious violations -- including imprisonment of labor organizers and deadly factory mishaps -- took place at footwear factories, Worker Rights Consortium representatives said.
"The overall problems of rampant labor rights abuses extend across the industry sectors, including footwear," the organization's executive director, Scott Nova, said in a conference call with reporters.
VIEWS DIFFER ON NSA
Perhaps the biggest stir on Capitol Hill last week came when the House narrowly defeated an effort to strip the National Security Agency of its ability to collect massive amounts of data on phone calls as part of the agency's anti-terrorism efforts.
Maine's two House members voted to rein in the NSA, siding with an unusual coalition of tea party Republicans, libertarians and liberal Democrats. Their side lost 217-205.
"I voted against the last reauthorization of the Patriot Act because I thought it went too far, but even some of the people who voted for it never imagined it would be used for the kind of widespread surveillance that essentially circumvents the Fourth Amendment," U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-District 1, said in a statement. "It is important for the government to have the ability to investigate and prevent terrorist attacks, but we also have to respect the constitution."
Michaud, also a Democrat, released the following statement explaining his vote: "In light of the information disclosed about NSA surveillance programs, I believe we must limit the government's authority to collect data on American phone calls. I strongly support allowing critical national security investigations to take place, but not at the expense of our privacy."
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