China drafts law to boost unions and end abuse

(The New York Times)
Updated: 2006-10-16 14:02

SHANGHAI - China is planning to adopt a new law that seeks to crack down on sweatshops and protect workers' rights by giving labor unions real power for the first time since it introduced market forces in the 1980's.

Liu Cheng, a professor who is advising the government, says the new law will hold companies accountable.

The move, which underscores the government¡¯s growing concern about the widening income gap and threats of social unrest, is setting off a battle with American and other foreign corporations that have lobbied against it by hinting that they may build fewer factories here.

The proposed rules are being considered after the Chinese Communist Party endorsed a new doctrine that will put greater emphasis on tackling the severe side effects of the country¡¯s remarkable growth.

Whether the foreign corporations will follow through on their warnings is unclear because of the many advantages of being in China - even with restrictions and higher costs that may stem from the new law. It could go into effect as early as next May.

It would apply to all companies in China, but its emphasis is on foreign-owned companies and the suppliers to those companies.

The conflict with the foreign corporations is significant partly because it comes at a time when labor, energy and land costs are rising in this country, all indications that doing business in China is likely to get much more expensive in the coming years.

But it is not clear how effectively such a new labor law would be carried out through this vast land because local officials have tended to ignore directives from the central government or seek ways around them.

China's economy has become one of the most robust in the world since the emphasis on free markets in the 80's encouraged millions of young workers to labor for low wages at companies that made cheap exports. As a result, foreign investment has poured into China.

Some of the world's big companies have expressed concern that the new rules would revive some aspects of socialism and borrow too heavily from labor laws in union-friendly countries like France and Germany.

The Chinese government proposal, for example, would make it more difficult to lay off workers, a condition that some companies contend would be so onerous that they might slow their investments in China.

"This is really two steps backward after three steps forward," said Kenneth Tung, Asia-Pacific director of legal affairs at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Hong Kong and a legal adviser to the American Chamber of Commerce here.

The proposed law is being debated after Wal-Mart Stores, the world¡¯s biggest retailer, was forced to accept unions in its Chinese outlets.

State-controlled unions here have not wielded much power in the past, but after years of reports of worker abuse, the government seems determined to give its union new powers to negotiate worker contracts, safety protection and workplace ground rules.

Hoping to head off some of the rules, representatives of some American companies are waging an intense lobbying campaign to persuade the Chinese government to revise or abandon the proposed law.

The skirmish has pitted the American Chamber of Commerce - which represents corporations including Dell, Ford, General Electric, Microsoft and Nike - against labor activists and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the Communist Party¡¯s official union organization.