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Chinese accession to WTO must be accompanied by progress on core labour standards says world union

ICFTU Online... 214/991116/DD, 16 November 1999

Brussels November 16 1999 (ICFTU OnLine): - If China is to be accepted into the WTO, it must abide by international labour standards,' said ICFTU General Secretary Bill Jordan, commenting on China's anticipated entry to the WTO.

China's record of violations of its workers' most basic human rights is already causing grave problems for its trading partners - particularly for other developing countries, which are finding it impossible to compete with China's exports. If those problems are not going to get worse as a result of China's entry, China must show its readiness to abide by international standards for the respect of those rights.

As part of its accession procedure, China is about to be asked to accept all the commitments incumbent on each and every WTO member country, in areas ranging from tariff levels to intellectual property rights. Those commitments also include the Singapore statement adopted in 1996 by the WTO, stating that all WTO members will uphold internationally-recognised core labour standards.

The ICFTU considers, therefore, that if its candidacy for membership of the WTO is to be accepted by the WTO's 135 member states, China must assure the international trading community that it is ready to play by the same rules as every other WTO member. Part of that means that China must formally state its commitment to uphold those same core labour standards.

Because China is now the 11th largest exporter in the world, it was inevitable that it would seek to join the World Trade Organisation, said the ICFTU. However the dramatic transformation which China has seen during the last ten years is providing the international trade union movement with reasons to be concerned about the situation of workers and the failure to respect workers' rights, warned the world union.

During this period, the ICFTU has been tabling detailed abuses of workers' rights in China. Just last week it sent a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan raising the cases of 30 independent trade union activists who are currently serving long sentences in Chinese jails, including those who were sentenced to for having co-founded the Free Labour Union of China, and who are being denied medical attention in jail.

Independent trade unions are illegal in China, and are suppressed and their leaders imprisoned. The National Security Law, the Regulations on Re-education through Labour, and the Regulations on Reform through Labour, allow the detention of activists who attempt to organise independent labour action. Re-education through labour (laojiao) is increasingly used as a form of administrative detention because it avoids the need for a trial and allows local police to hand out sentences of up to three years in a forced labour camp, which, in practice, may be increased at will by the authorities.

Large numbers of independent labour activists, sentenced to long prison terms in the wake of the repression of China's pro-democracy movement of May-June 1989, remain in jail or forced labour camps, despite repeated demands by the International Labour Office's Committee on Freedom of Association for their sentences to be re-ex-amined and the prisoners released. The Government has so far withheld any information as to the whereabouts of most of those concerned.

Despite repeated requests from trade union and human rights organisations, the Chinese government has not revised its attitude or behaviour to independent trade unionists, says the ICFTU. It warns that opening up trade in this way could send a signal to the Chinese authorities that the international community was prepared to ignore this repressive behaviour which defies universal, core labour standards.

Multinational companies and direct foreign investment are central to the entry of China into the global economy. Most direct foreign investment in China is in export-orientated manufacturing, which has transformed China into the 11th largest exporter in the world. Almost 50% of Chinese exports are from enterprises that are foreign invested. No other country has such a high ratio.

The sources of direct foreign investment are also striking, the ICFTU points out. Inward flows to China in 1995 showed that Taiwan was the largest investor with US$3.2 billion, followed by the United States and Japan at US$3.1 billion each. The total for EU member states taken together was US$2.3 billion.

Bill Jordan drew attention to the frequent allegations of corruption and plain outright disregard for written legal contracts experienced by many foreign companies and business people attempting to do business in China. These sorts of problems were sidelined in the headlong rush to get China into the WTO; but they show how important it is to require China to give proof of its commitment to respect core labour standards, he stated.

Before China is officially accepted into the WTO, says the ICFTU, the other members of the WTO should require that China agree to abide by the same commitments which they have made to observe core labour standards.