June 8, 2004

Group: Workers Likely Won't Be Unionized


Filed at 6:13 p.m. ET

DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) -- As General Motors Corp. and other top automakers prepare to invest billions of dollars in China, international labor leaders paint a bleak picture for the prospect of organized representation for auto workers there. Labor officials say that's likely to mean low wages and poor working conditions.

``The Chinese government is engaged in a systematic campaign to repress legitimate trade union activity in order to suppress wages and attract foreign capital,'' Ron Gettelfinger, the president of the United Auto Workers union, said Tuesday in remarks to the International Metalworkers' Federation World Auto Council.

Roughly 200 union officials representing auto workers in 25 countries are meeting through Thursday in this Detroit suburb to discuss strategies for dealing with industry changes, such as the outsourcing of jobs in some regions and rapid expansion taking place in Asia.

In particular, China's economy is expected to grow at an annual rate of 9.8 percent in the first half of this year, and auto sales are strong. Since 1996, global automakers have pumped more than $12 billion into Chinese automotive operations, according to the IMF, and the spending continues.

GM, the world's largest automaker, said Monday it plans to invest $3 billion over the next three years in China, which is poised to become the third largest market for auto production behind the United States and Japan.

While business prospects are bright for automakers, labor leaders say they're concerned that China's state-controlled trade unions will continue to resist the introduction of internationally recognized worker rights.

``They've even gone so far as to actively support denial of these rights,'' IMF President Jurgen Peters told the gathering, though he said ``there are now some initial signs of a cautious thaw.''

In March, organized labor asked the Bush administration to impose economic sanctions on China, contending the country had violated workers' rights to gain trade advantages against the United States.

The request represented the latest effort by American unions to highlight what they see as unfair trade practices that have led to a record $124 billion U.S. trade deficit with China last year and the loss of thousands of U.S. factory jobs.

The petition, filed by the AFL-CIO, alleged that China was brutally repressing worker rights, constituting an unfair labor practice as defined in Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974.

The Bush administration decided against pursuing the complaint and said it would continue to work with China through diplomatic channels to improve trade relations.

Gettelfinger criticized Bush for rejecting the petition, saying the president ``has little interest in raising the living standards of Chinese workers.''

The UAW boss noted, however, that the AFL-CIO had accepted an invitation from the Chinese government to visit the country and inspect working conditions.

Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in labor issues, said he doesn't expect any quick changes to China's labor environment, but foreign automakers and organizations such as the AFL-CIO and UAW should apply pressure.

``China needs access to other markets to sustain its export trajectory,'' Shaiken said. ``These unions and their respective governments have considerable leverage to open up China. It's not going to be easy, but it's possible. The alternative is that China becomes, in effect, a black hole when it comes to wages and benefits globally. That doesn't do anyone any good.''

GM spokesman Pat Morrissey said he wasn't able to comment on government affairs, but that GM's operations in China provide the same type of safety training and worker protections as in other parts of the world. GM also has said its joint-venture workers in China make significantly more than the average state worker.

``The manufacturing system we have in place in China is as close to identical as we can make it to what we're doing elsewhere around the world,'' Morrissey said.


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