A.F.L.-C.I.O. Files a Trade Complaint Against China's Labor Practices

Published: June 9, 2006

WASHINGTON, June 8 - The A.F.L.-C.I.O. filed a trade complaint on Thursday asking President Bush to penalize China, asserting that it violates workers' rights by suppressing strikes, barring independent unions and letting factories ignore laws on minimum wages and child labor.

The complaint says that repression of workers' rights has enabled Chinese companies to push down labor costs by at least 47 percent, undercutting American companies and causing the loss of more than 400,000 factory jobs in the United States.

''The Chinese work force is so large and its labor repression is so severe that it is dragging down standards for the entire world economy,'' the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s secretary- treasurer, Richard Trumka, said. ''The fact is that China is violating international trade law, and our nation is doing nothing about it.''

With Mr. Bush on the defensive and the Congressional campaign heating up, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. hopes that its petition will get candidates to focus on China, the soaring trade deficit and the loss of manufacturing jobs.

G. Hamilton Loeb, a Washington lawyer who often represents the Chinese government and industry, said the complaint seemed largely political: ''They're teeing it up, figuring that it will give them an issue they can use in the midterm House campaigns. An issue like this might have a swing effect in a very close race.''

The federation filed a similar complaint two years ago, but Mr. Bush quickly rejected it, with administration officials saying they would use persuasion and cooperation, rather than confrontation, to deal with labor violations in China.

At a news conference, A.F.L.-C.I.O. officials said on Thursday that they might have a better chance persuading the administration to approve trade penalties this time because several members of Congress are backing the complaint and because the annual trade deficit with China has soared more than 50 percent in two years, to $202 billion in 2005.

Representative Christopher Smith, Republican of New Jersey, said he was supporting the petition because China has arrested and imprisoned those who oppose unjust labor practices.

''There is no recourse for millions of Chinese laborers trapped in poor working conditions,'' Mr. Smith said. ''Despite the administration's efforts to encourage the Chinese to comply with international labor standards, the Chinese government continues to ignore worker rights.''

Stephen Norton, a spokesman for the United States trade representative, said the government was studying the complaint. He said it was too early to speculate on the outcome.

''In general, the administration believes that a strong and growing relationship with China, driven by mutual interests, is the best way to encourage economic, social and political reform in China,'' Mr. Norton said. ''We hope that our continued engagement will be the best way to address the concerns we have with labor rights and working conditions in China.''

He said that the Labor Department had provided its expertise to the Chinese authorities, helping to reduce worker deaths.

The administration has 45 days to respond to the petition, which was filed under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974.

But there is some debate about the scope of that legislation. Union leaders say that the act authorizes the federal government to assess trade penalties against countries that violate internationally recognized labor rights, like the right to form unions and the bans on using child labor and forced labor.

Some trade lawyers argue, however, that the World Trade Organization will not allow the United States to punish countries that violate labor rights.

The A.F.L.-C.I.O's complaint cites numerous cases in which Chinese authorities have suppressed efforts to form unions independent of the official government-backed organizations. The complaint also says that Chinese authorities regularly fail to enforce minimum wage and safety laws, noting that 26,700 Chinese workers died last year from industrial injuries and illnesses.

''This petition carefully documents what most Americans already know, but the Bush administration has yet to confront: that China persistently and systematically denies even the most basic rights to its people,'' said another Congressional supporter of the complaint, Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the Trade Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Thea Lee, an A.F.L.-C.I.O. economist, said the group's concern was not that China had low wages, but that it repressed worker rights. If the Chinese government enforced workers' rights, the complaint argues, the country's overall manufacturing costs would rise sharply.

While some labor groups argue that low-wage countries have an unfair advantage in trading, Gary Clyde Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics, said wealthy nations benefit from trading with poor nations.

''The U.S. gains on the consumption side when we are able to import stuff from China cheaper than we can make it,'' Mr. Hufbauer said. ''Then American companies have to compete against those companies, and they are driven to higher levels of productivity. It boosts productivity in the United States.''

At the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s news conference, George Bornes asserted that Chinese competition had caused him to be laid off after 38 years working at Wheatland Tube's steel pipe factory in Sharon, Pa., He said China's pipe exports to the United States had soared to 300,000 tons a year, from 9,000 a few years ago.

As a result, he said, Wheatland has idled the plant and laid off 300 workers. Mr. Bornes said he was tired of seeing Wheatland jobs ''threatened by China's violations of fair trade and our own government's failure to enforce our trade laws.''