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China agrees to cooperate with ILO on promoting labor rights

AFP, Thursday 17 May 2001; 9:01 PM SGT

BEIJING, May 17 (AFP) - China and the International Labor Organization (ILO) on Thursday signed a memorandum of understanding under which Beijing promised to promote workers' rights.

The agreement will launch a program of cooperation between China's ministry of labor and social security and the ILO.

These will include activities to raise public awareness about international labor standards, to design job training programs and strengthen the unemployment benefit system.

Its aim is to strengthen national policies in China for employment, social dialogue and social protection in line with internationally recognized principles and rights at work, Juan Somavia, the ILO's director-general, told reporters at a press conference.

But labor rights advocates said the ILO's work in China, which has been in the form of training and technical assistance, have failed to achieve concrete results because China has refused to ratify United Nations and ILO conventions allowing workers to join independent unions and bargain collectively.

For example, the ILO has many workers' safety projects in China. But there's a basic problem: workers protection can't be from top to bottom, said Hong Kong-based China labor watchdog Han Dongfang.

Workers have to have the right to organize and bargain collectively. Without that, no matter how much public training, you can't resolve the basic problems.

China only allows single labor unions to exist, controlled by the government. All other unions must fall under its supervision.

The government-controlled unions have been ineffective in protecting workers' rights, with even state media often reporting cases in which corrupt managers at state-owned firms failed to pay back wages, pensions and unemployment benefits to laid-off employees.

Common laborers who push for fair treatment are often arrested for demanding their rights, said Han, who heads China Labor Bulletin.

China has also refused to ratify the ILO convention against forced labor. It routinely forces people sent to re-education through labor camps, prisons for those sentenced to lighter crimes, to work.

China's labour minister Zhang Zuoji defended China's actions at the press conference, saying its laws adequately protect workers' rights.

For example, he said, not ratifying this international convention (on forced labor) doesn't mean we don't oppose forced labor or that we're not observing regulations on forced labor, Zhang said, adding that the labor camps had proved very effective.

Somavia said he had also submitted a list of Chinese citizens detained for joining labor organizations to the Chinese government and expressed his concerns to the government about the cases.

Zhang said China has in the past been willing to look into such cases raised by ILO and other international groups and has even released some people on humanitarian grounds, but justified those arrests, saying they did not join legitimate unions.

China in March ratified the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, but with reservations on a key part which upholds the right to establish free trade unions.