U.S. pact opposes forced Chinese labor

By Abid Aslam, IPS, Asia Times, 4 June 1999

WASHINGTON—U.S. human rights activists are teaming up with big business to support labor rights in China, 10 years after the military clampdown against students and workers in Tiananmen Square.

Leading U.S. toy maker Mattel, apparel firm Levi Strauss, and shoe manufacturer Reebok are the first three firms to endorse a set of U.S. Business Principles for Human Rights of Workers in China.

The principles, drawn up by the non-governmental groups International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), Global Exchange and Human Rights in China, forbid the signatories and their Chinese suppliers from using forced or bonded labor.

Rights groups say these practices are especially prevalent in light manufacturing industries that have posted the world's fastest economic growth rates—20 percent per year in Guangdong province and 45 percent in the special economic zone of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong.

Companies adopting the principles also must protect workers' right to form labor unions and participate in political and religious activities but specific guidelines still have to be developed by a working group—made up of labor, consumer and human rights activists.

This is the first time major U.S. corporations have endorsed human rights principles for China, says Bama Athreya, ILRF's director of Asia programmes.

Organizers say the rights campaign is a response to what they see as a failed U.S. policy of constructive engagement since June 3-4, 1989, when the Chinese government sent in troops and tanks to put down demonstrations in favour of democracy.

The question at this point is hardly one of engaging China versus isolating China, says Athreya. It is, rather, one of the type of engagement we will choose.

Under constructive engagement commercial relations with the United States were to have yielded Western-style political reforms.

Foreign investment has quadrupled and China's trade surplus with the United States has increased ten-fold but the policy has fostered new types of rights abuses, according to an ILRF report.

Successive U.S. administrations have argued against using trade to promote human rights issues, [but] they have not hesitated to use threats of trade sanctions to continue to promote U.S. commercial interests—for example, through intellectual property rights enforcement against manufacturers of pirated compact discs.

Yet, the very levers used to extract trade concessions also could be used to promote workers' rights, according to the labor group.

Section 301 of the U.S. Trade Act, which has been used so effectively to promote respect for intellectual property rights, also contains language defining worker rights violations as an unfair trading practice, the ILRF notes.

China's key light-industry sector is staffed mainly by migrants from rural areas and former state employees—all in search of jobs after being displaced by reforms undertaken as part of the country's experiment with capitalist enterprise.

Workers face low wages, debt bondage, unpaid overtime and unsafe working conditions while the leaders of nascent workers' forums are immediately detained.

The ILRF acknowledges that similar abuses haunt export processing zones throughout the developing world, but says that government controls over internal movement in China have exacerbated this pattern.

Migrant workers require numerous permits to relocate and take up new employment, the labor group notes. Employers keep these documents under lock and key, effectively holding their workers in captivity.

So-called township-village enterprises are able to establish their own policies regarding wages, working hours and benefits under China's move from a centrally-run economy to socialism with market characteristics, the ILRF notes.

In the heavily industrialized manufacturing zones of south China, local authorities have facilitated the ability of [these] enterprises to circumvent national labor laws by establishing far more lenient local regulations, says the report.

Beijing and Washington normalized diplomatic ties in 1979 and China has enjoyed Most Favored Nation trading status since 1980. (This was re-named Normal Trade Relations in 1998 to reflect the fact that it is applied to most U.S. trading partners.)

China's status has been subject to annual review by Congress. Since Tiananmen, SAYS THE ILRF, lawmakers have tried to use this leverage to push human rights conditions—only to be vetoed by President George Bush and sucked into a maelstrom of contradictory policies since Bill Clinton succeeded Bush in 1993.

Washington would be required to grant permanent Normal Trade Relations status as a condition of China's accession to the World Trade OrganiZation but progress has been stalled by ongoing trade disputes and allegations of Chinese nuclear espionage.

Overseas markets and investors are increasingly important to China. Unemployment is rising and trade pressures have increased as a result of currency devaluations in countries hit by the Asian financial crisis.

Yet, notes Walden Bello, co-director of the Thailand- based Focus on the Global South, the Beijing government has not devalued the yuan but has kept a promise not to throw obstacles in the way of neighbors struggling to achieve export-driven recovery.

Last year, China exported some $70 billion worth of goods to the United States and imported about $14 billion worth of U.S. goods, according to official figures. Commentators here often fret about that trade deficit.

Some economists note that cheap Chinese imports also help to dampen the U.S. inflation rate.

The Federal Reserve, the United States' central bank, cited low inflation as among the key factors enabling it to ease interest rates last year in a bid to stimulate the economy and spare the United States from recession induced by global economic turmoil.

Economic analysts say the latest campaign will not significantly alter the larger economic picture because it will hold U.S. companies doing business in China to international rights declarations already endorsed by China—and to wage standards established under Chinese law.

These are sufficiently below prevailing U.S. pay rates not to tip the competitive scales, analysts point out.

(Inter Press Service)