Ho Chi Minute Rice

Congress debates trade with Vietnam, Little Saigon goes shopping

To Little Saigon activists like Do, those giveaways started in 1994, when Clinton lifted America's 20-year-old trade embargo against Vietnam. Soon after, a host of U.S.-based multinational corporations—including Proctor & Gamble, Nike, Ford, and General Motors—opened shop in Vietnam. The multinationals hoped to take advantage of Vietnam's ready supply of cheap labor and its potential market of almost 20 million consumers.

As those companies quickly realized, however, the Vietnamese government wasn't going to give them a free ride. For example, Vietnam allowed Nike to pay Vietnamese workers less than a dollar a day to sew shoes. But it also demanded that Nike—along with all foreign companies doing business in Vietnam—enter into a joint venture with Vietnam's government that gave it a controlling 51 percent share of Nike's operations there.

Signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1974, the Jackson-Vannick amendment denies favored trading status for any country whose immigration policies are deemed repressive against its own population. Initially used by Nixon to restrict trade with the Soviet Union, Jackson-Vannick expanded during the height of the Cold War to include dozens of nations around the world—most of them Soviet-bloc countries—including Vietnam.

Waiving the Jackson-Vannick amendment for Vietnam in 1998 was only supposed to broaden trade—part of what Clinton called his policy of "constructive engagement" with Vietnam. In fact, waiving Jackson-Vannick provides government subsidies to companies such as Nike. Without the waiver, U.S. companies doing business in Vietnam are prohibited from applying for any of the federal loans and other subsidies available to U.S. companies overseas, including the Export-Import Bank, the Trade Development Agency, and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), which insures U.S.-based companies abroad.

"The waiver really helps American business more than the Vietnamese authorities," said Van Thai Tran, an Orange County lawyer with the Coalition Against the Jackson-Vannick Waiver for Vietnam. "It doesn't help Little Saigon at all. From what we've seen, since the administration first sent out signals that it would waive Jackson-Vannick in 1997, there has been no sign that local business interests are at all a part of the dialogue. The waiver just benefits large U.S. companies."

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