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AFL-CIO urges Bush to condeman China's rights abuses
Jared Pearman
3/28/2004



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One of America’s largest labor unions, AFL-CIO, has taken an innovative step to protect the rights of workers in the United States by protecting the rights of workers in China. Human rights groups hope more can be done.

On March 16, the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations’ Industrial Union Council filed a petition with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and President Bush, urging them to take action against China’s “unreasonable trade practices” under Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act. Businesses have frequently used the act to petition against violations of property rights and rights of investors, but this is the first time that anyone has attempted to extend the definition of “unreasonable trade practices” to include violations of human rights and worker rights.

Bob Baugh, executive director of AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Council, says: “We have rules for trade, and they don’t just apply to commercial property and intellectual property. They include labor rights and environmental standards. If we raise the standard for everyone, we grow together. Our nation has a responsibility; corporations have a responsibility.”

The petition states that China’s repression of worker rights lowers the price of Chinese manufactured goods by 47-86 percent, giving China “an unfair advantage” in the world market. It includes an estimate that it has caused the loss of more than 700,000 U.S. jobs. “This is a fundamental economic and moral argument. We filed this petition because we absolutely, fundamentally believe that human rights are the foundation (of trade relationships),” Baugh said.

According to the Trade Act, President Bush and the trade representative must take action against countries engaged in “unreasonable trade practices.” The question facing the administration today is whether these violations of human rights, well-documented by the U.S. State Department, fall into the category of “unreasonable trade practices.” A Senate hearing will be held Monday, March 29, to help determine this. By law, Bush and Zoellick have 45 days from the filing date to take action, but AFL-CIO expects a quick decision.

In spite of the AFL-CIO’s commitment to human rights, this filing says little about the worst abuses of labor in China, namely, the system of forced labor camps, or laogai, and the slave labor that goes on inside them. The problem for the petitioners is one of evidence.

Baugh feels this could not be avoided: “We mentioned (the Labor Camps), but we focused on broader issues and the best-documented, systemic violations of worker’s rights.”

Harry Wu, the executive director of the Laogai Research Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to compiling factual information about life within the laogai, knows all too well about the difficulty of evidence in dealing with the problem of slave labor in China. He says: “The details of how many people are detained in Chinese labor camps, how much money they make through slave labor, how many people die in them and how many people are executed are top secrets in China.”

Wu spent most of his adult life, 19 years, in China’s slave camps. Since his release, he has dedicated himself to exposing the inhumanity of these camps and bringing attention to the vast enterprise of exporting products made by prisoners of the labor camps.

Baugh knows very well that the products of slave labor in China appear frequently in the United States. He recalls one interview with practitioner of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice currently under persecution by the Chinese government, who had managed to flee China after her release from the laogai. “While this woman was in the labor camp, she was sewing patches onto canvas bags. Do you know who those bags were for?” He answered himself with the same shock in his voice that he must have had when he first heard it. “The Smithsonian! … Someone in America contracts to someone in China, who contracts someone else, and four steps down the road, American products get made by slave labor.”

When asked his opinion of the AFL-CIO filing, Wu said, “It has no teeth.” Underlying his response is a more general complaint about U.S. policy toward China. “Why the embargo on Cuba? Why the fight against the Soviet Union? Why do the opposite with China? I don’t understand how they can buy human rights in China, how cooperating with the communists will help. They think that money can convince a tiger to be vegetarian.”

Baugh and Wu work differently to improve human rights in China, but they share certain fundamentals: America has to take the lead in pressuring China for reforms, and good moral sense is good business sense.

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