WASHINGTON - March 16 - The AFL-CIO this morning filed an unprecedented petition under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 demanding that President Bush and the U.S. Trade Representative pressure the Chinese government for engaging in unreasonable trade practices by their violations of workers rights. According to the petition, workers in China are being forced to work for wages 47 to 86 percent below what they should be, often as bonded laborers, with few workplace health and safety protections and no right to join or form free trade unions.
The cost-advantage of worker repression to China-based producers is staggering, the petition states --- if the Chinese government enforced workers rights and its own minimum wage and workplace standards, manufacturing costs there would rise between 12 and 77 percent, or an average of 44 percent.
"President Bush and the U.S. Trade Representative can refuse to take action only if they find that the Chinese government does not persistently deny workers rights, or that the denial of those rights imposes no burden on U.S. workers," John J. Sweeney, president of the 13 million-member labor federation, said at a press briefing this morning. "They have 45 days to make up their minds, but we hope they wont delay that long --- they could have and should have taken action themselves long ago."
Businesses often use the provisions of the Trade Act to challenge unfair commercial practices such as a failure to enforce intellectual property rights of investors. But this is the first time the Act has been used to charge a country with workers rights violations since the Act was amended in 1988 to include such conduct as "unreasonable trade practices."
AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard L. Trumka, who heads the labor federations Industrial Union Council, said the petition was filed to help stem the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs. He noted that an estimated 2.8 million manufacturing jobs have disappeared just since Bush took office, and that one of the culprits is "a global trading system that fails to protect workers rights, which translates into a powerful inducement for capital flight, overseas production by U.S. industries, and a loss of market share by domestic producers."
"China has emerged as a chief violator of workers rights, and its workforce is so large and its labor repression so comprehensive, that it is dragging down standards for the entire world," Trumka said. "Our own countrys largest trade deficit --- $124 billion dollars --- is now with China, and in our petition we present evidence that more than 700,000 U.S. workers have been displaced as a direct result of violations of workers rights by the Chinese government.
Wei Jinsheng --- an electrician at the Beijiing Zoo before he was imprisoned for 18 years and then deported --- told reporters the Chinese government has failed to enforce any of the internationally-recognized workers rights standards cited by the Trade Act of 1974, among them the right to join unions, freedom from forced labor, freedom from child labor, and standards for minimum wages, maximum hours of work and workplace safety and health.
Teresa Luna, a member of the United Steelworkers of America who lost her job when Magnequench, a company that makes magnets which are crucial components in missiles, moved its plant from Valparaiso, Indiana to China, said the loss of jobs has been devastating to her family and to her community.
"Three weeks ago, I found a new job that pays less than I made at Magnequench but provides the health insurance that my family so desperately needs. I look around my town and think about the people who stood next to me on the plant floor and remember the stories they told about their children, who dreamed of going to college, or their spouses, who were undergoing treatment for cancer. I hear about how every time there is any type of job opening, hundreds of applicants show up to fill one spot. These days even Walmart isnt hiring. The jobs are just all gone. And when their employment runs out in a few weeks time, my friends and coworkers will be left with nothing."
Trumka said the AFL-CIO is making three demands of President Bush. "We demand that the U.S. Trade Representative investigate our complaint and impose trade remedies commensurate with the cost advantage caused by the Chinese governments denial of worker rights. We demand negotiation of an agreement with the Chinese government that these remedies will be reduced only if China meets specific and verifiable benchmarks of enforcement of workers rights. And we demand that the President direct the U.S. Trade Representative to enter into no new WTO-related trade agreements until the WTO requires each of its members to comply with the core labor rights of the International Labor Organization."
Mark Barenberg, a Professor of International Law at Columbia University, drafted the AFL-CIO petition.