VS. CHINA ON WORKER RIGHTS
By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer
WASHINGTON (PAI)--Saying China's repression of workers breaks international trade rules and its low wages break its own laws, the AFL-CIO formally filed an international trade case against the People's Republic of China on workers' rights.
The March 16 filing forces the GOP Bush government either join it or reject it within 45 days. And this petition will be followed within a few weeks by a second case against China, for currency violations, AFL-CIO officials said.
"The administration could have done a lot of things on its own," AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka said. "It could have enforced our trade laws on its own. It could have negotiated better deals on its own.
"This puts all of the facts together in one place" and forces Bush officials to respond to China's actions, he added. They show "the systematic denial of workers' rights gives China a distinct advantage over American workers."
Flanked by a Chinese ¨¦migr¨¦ electrician and a USWA member who lost her job when her company closed its Valparaiso, Ind., plant and moved production to Beijing, Trumka said China's policies cost at least 700,000 U.S. workers their jobs.
China's policies include a ban on independent unions, non-enforcement of its minimum-wage laws--thus cutting its workers' wages by 47 percent-86 percent--and use of child labor, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney and the others pointed out.
All add up to a "persistent pattern of violating interna-tional standards of workers' rights" while "inflicting great hardship on working families" here and in China, Sweeney said.
The AFL-CIO filed the case under Section 301 of U.S. trade law, which labor pushed through Congress more than a decade ago. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, and House International Relations Committee Ranking Democrat Thomas Lantos (D-Calif.) applauded the move afterwards.
Section 301 approves challenges of other nations' trade practices as commercially unfair. Bush used Section 301 only once recently, said AFL-CIO international trade specialist Thea Lee: To challenge the Ukraine on intellectual property piracy. It won sanctions and a fine. It challenged China, using WTO rules--not section 301--on semiconductor imports, on March 18.
"If it (a 301 case) can be filed for that (intellectual property), it can be filed for workers' rights," Lee added.
The trade law was amended in 1988, Sweeney said, to include workers' rights violations as "unreasonable trade practices."
When a corporation files a Section 301 complaint, the government must respond within 45 days. This is the first time the AFL-CIO has ever filed a trade complaint.
But the real impact of Chinese violations is in the harm they do to workers here and there, said Trumka, Chinese worker Wei Jinsheng, and Terri Luna, Vice President of USWA Local 1191 in Valparaiso.
Luna was a grinding machine operator for Magnaquench, maker of high-powered magnets used in everything "from computers and cars to guided missiles our troops recently used in Iraq."
She was also a member of USWA Local 1191's bargaining team when 49 percent of the then-French-owned firm was sold to a Chinese government-owned company.
Monthly meetings with management soon made it clear that Magnaquench's Chinese owners planned to shut the Valparaiso plant and move production to Asia. The average Valparaiso worker earned $16 an hour; the average Chinese worker earns 23 cents, she said afterwards. The Valparaiso plant shut on Jan. 3, 2003.
"Gary Riley, one of the executives, actually told us in bargaining that 'You could work there for nothing and we'd still move to Asia,'" Luna said.
Magnaquench employment has dropped from 225 to six. Luna said most of her fellow former workers are still unemployed and many exhausted their jobless benefits. She found a job with USWA, making a dollar an hour less than she did at Magnaquench.
The impact goes beyond the Magnaquench workers, she added.
"Other companies know what's going on and they say to us in bargaining 'To compete with foreign countries, you have to take a pay cut and pay more for health care coverage,'" Luna said. "And they know we can't strike" because of threatened closures.
And workers for suppliers to the plant--such as food vendors who supplied canteen--also lost jobs, she noted.
Speaking through an interpreter, Wei Jingsheng said China's illegal policies hurt its workers, too: "The reason Chinese products are so cheap is because Chinese workers have no rights...Conditions there are not fair at all." ###