Press Associates, Inc. (PAI) -- 4/5/2004



By Mark Gruenberg

PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI)--Last October 1 in Beijing, on China'a National Day, Yang Pei Quan poured gasoline on himself in Tienanmen Square and lit a match.

The construction worker from Hubei was broke--because his employer refused to pay him anything at all for months, and he could not return to his rural village in disgrace.

Yang was one of many workers forced to protest their lack of pay last year by committing suicide, a Chinese workers' rights leader said after a Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing March 29 on China's labor conditions. His self-immolation just happened to be the most publicized case.

"There are hundreds of such cases. They jump off bridges and more often pour gasoline on themselves as a way of protesting," Ciping Huang, Secretary-General of the Overseas Chinese Democracy Coalition, told Press Associates.

And Yang isn't alone, she added: Chinese government policy and police backing of employers produce abominable working conditions in the People's Republic--such as no pay at all.

"The employers worked them and didn't pay them. And when they (workers) protested, the employers were backed up by the government," she explained.

Government and employer practices like that prompted the AFL-CIO on March 16 to file the first-ever labor-conditions trade case under U.S. trade law, against China.

In a wide-ranging, well-documented complaint, the federation showed China not only breaks World Trade Organization rules--which it agreed to several years ago--but its own laws, including its wage laws.

And that Chinese law-breaking in turn costs U.S. workers at least 727,000 jobs, the federation's complaint added.

The complaint, under Section 301 of U.S. trade law, lets the U.S. formally challenge such inhuman working conditions as violations of the WTO trade treaty China signed--if Bush regime officials choose to do so. They have until the end of April to decide whether to probe and protest.

The federation's action, in turn, led Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) to chair the hearing, to put pressure on Bush to probe the Chinese practices.

"The workers of China are grossly underpaid and lack basic protections, such as pensions and health insurance," Ciping Huang testified. "China's export workers earn pitifully low wages--as little as 15 cents to 30 cents an hour--and receive brutal treatment.

"Some had to work up to 12-16 hours a day, 7 days a week" and days off are nonexistent for months and years, Huang said. "And when workers reach their prime age of 40 or 50, they are laid off" without safety nets. For women, the layoff age may be 30, she pointed out.

"There is no competitive labor market, let alone rights of unionization, to ensure that workers' earnings grow with their productivity" or to protect them, she said.

U.S.-based multinationals use those conditions to increase their use of Chinese labor, and their profits, added Columbia Law School Professor Mark Barenberg, who drafted the AFL-CIO's case.

"I was distressed by what I saw during my research in China" for two years, he explained. Barenberg, who is also an economist, met factory managers who were hired by U.S. firms.

They told him, on condition of anonymity, of hazardous working conditions, workers' rights abuses and exposure of workers to toxic chemicals.

The abuses include Chinese government work permits that limit job mobility, mandates that workers pay up to a year's salary in advance to get a permit and "dormitories" where workers, usually young women, are locked in after work hours.

"They become bonded laborers, a form of forced labor under international law," and illegal, he added. Elaborating on Cipuang Huang's comments, Barenberg "talked to workers who were not paid for six months or a year at a stretch, and when they were (his emphasis) paid, they got half of what they were promised. That's routine in China.

"Many local governments have made it a crime to threaten to commit suicide in order to get paid," Barenberg pointed out.

Bush recently cited WTO rules in a case against Chinese semiconductor import restrictions. Whether he'll use U.S. law to move against the Chinese on workers' rights is unknown. "I hope so," Dorgan said after the hearing. But he said he has not formed a backup plan if Bush refuses. ###