- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2004

U.S. labor leaders yesterday demanded that the Bush administration slap China with trade sanctions because of workers’ rights violations.

“China has emerged as a chief violator of workers’ rights, and its work force is so large and its labor repression so comprehensive that it is dragging down standards for the entire world,” said Richard L. Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, a federation of labor unions.

The AFL-CIO filed a petition with the U.S. Trade Representatives Office (USTR) amid rising concerns about job losses in the manufacturing sector and a growing trade gap with China. The administration has 45 days to respond.

Richard Mills, a spokesman for USTR, said it would be “inappropriate to comment specifically on the petition until we have had an opportunity to give the petition due consideration.”

But he said that “we are committed to aggressively enforcing our trade laws to ensure that U.S. companies can compete on a level playing field.”

Still, the Bush administration and organized labor have seldom seen eye-to-eye on trade policy. The AFL-CIO and other unions, for example, have fought free-trade agreements negotiated by the administration and accused the administration of failing to enforce trade agreements.

The AFL-CIO petition was filed under a section of U.S. trade law that allows the government to place duties on imports from foreign countries as a response to unfair trade practices that damage U.S. industries.

The law is most often invoked as a threat to open other markets, though occasionally duties follow. The United States in 2001, for example, placed tariffs on $75 million worth of metals, footwear and other imports from Ukraine because of music and movie piracy.

The law has never been used to enforce worker rights, such as the right to join unions and bargain collectively, safe working conditions and minimum wages.

Organized labor is concerned that repression of those rights depresses wages. In turn, U.S. companies are encouraged to chase lower costs overseas, eliminating U.S. jobs.

The AFL-CIO petition said that repression of workers’ rights lowers Chinese wages by 47 to 86 percent. The repression leads to a 43 percent cost advantage, which translates into a reduction of 268,345 to 727,130 U.S. jobs, the petition said.

The petition does not seek specific damages, but calls for “trade remedies commensurate with the cost advantage.”

An official at the Chinese Embassy in Washington declined comment.

Scott Flicker, a partner with the law firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky and Walker, has represented China in other trade-related cases. He said that the U.S. law was not intended to export U.S. working standards, and sanctions would violate World Trade Organization rules.

The petition, if accepted and enforced, also would set a bad precedent that would essentially allow the United States to impose sanctions against any country with a lower wage structure, Mr. Flicker said.

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