China's Workers

Until last week, U.S. trade law belonged to big business. Corporations routinely petitioned our government to threaten other countries with sanctions if their products were being knocked off or undersold by foreign manufacturers with state subsidies, and our government frequently complied. The solicitude the Bush White House and its predecessors showed for shareholders, however, was nowhere in evidence for workers. Profits depressed by unfair trade practices were an official object of concern; wages and employment levels depressed by unfair trade practices were none of the government's business.

This double standard was the heart of modern trade policy. Last week, that began to change. For the first time ever, the AFL-CIO filed the kind of unfair-trade petition that corporations commonly file, alleging that China's repression of workers' rights has displaced at minimum 727,000 U.S. jobs, and calling on the president to threaten China with tariffs until it stops artificially lowering its workers' wages.

The idea that our trade statutes protect American workers from competition with repressed workforces overseas will surprise just about everybody, but in fact, these laws were enacted by Congress in the 1980s and signed by Ronald Reagan. For the past 15 years, unions have taken no action under the laws, because the U.S. job losses were hard to quantify.

Over the past year, however, Mark Barenberg, a Columbia University law professor, and Mark Levinson, chief economist for UNITE (the clothing and textile union), concluded that changes in the global economy were so huge that such a calculation was now possible -- and necessary. In particular, there was the loss of nearly 3 million U.S. manufacturing jobs over the past three years, the concurrent explosion of Chinese manufacturing, the ballooning of the U.S. trade deficit with China and the abundant if largely ignored documentation of China's semi-Stalinist labor system. All these things combined to make a trade-law appeal on behalf of U.S. workers eminently plausible.

The 103-page AFL-CIO petition runs through an array of statistical analyses to come up with its figure of 727,000 displaced American manufacturing jobs. But its foremost achievement may be to encapsulate the vast literature that describes the part-feudal, part-communist labor system in which Chinese peasants must labor when they go to work in China's export-sector factories. Under China's hukou system of household registration, citizens must live and work in the place where they are permanently registered, normally their place of birth. Every household is designated as rural or urban, a distinction on which a caste system has been erected.

Urban workers are free to apply for and leave jobs; they are entitled to state housing and pensions. Rural workers, however, need state permission to seek work in towns and factories. Once employed, they enter a bonded-labor arrangement in which they cannot quit unless they can pay their employer an amount plainly beyond their means. The hukou system forbids them to compete with urban workers for higher-paying jobs, and migrant workers without jobs are subject to arrest by the state's public security bureau.

By state design, then, these workers have no power to affect their conditions of work. Though productivity in China has skyrocketed, they are routinely paid rural-level subsistence wages -- as little as 15 to 30 cents an hour -- when they are paid at all. Employers tend to recruit childless, young, single women, whom they pack into cement-block dormitories to which the women are commonly restricted when they're not on the factory floor. They cannot leave. They organize at the peril of imprisonment or torture.

China has 160 million workers in manufacturing and mining, nearly 12 times the U.S. total. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that 20 million peasants will enter the urban workforce every year for the next 20 years. This is, make no mistake, the planet's proletariat -- and it in no way resembles the kind of free labor force we take for granted in the United States. Those U.S.-based corporations that invest in Chinese factories -- a long list headed by Wal-Mart -- owe some nice chunk of their profits to a workforce toiling, to resurrect a line from Mao, under "the barrel of a gun."

Critics will doubtless call the AFL-CIO "protectionist" for filing this petition. And if it's protectionist to demand that millions of Chinese women have the right to leave their jobs and apply for better ones, or to unionize their workplace or be allowed at least one day off a year, if it's protectionist to demand that U.S. workers not lose their jobs because they cannot work as cheaply as these repressed Chinese workers, then the AFL-CIO should absolutely plead guilty. What I'd like to hear from the critics -- and from George W. Bush -- is why they're protecting the deal between U.S. corporations and China's neo-Stalinist state to extract profits for them both at the expense of tens of millions of desperate young women.

Harold Meyerson is Editor-at-Large of The American Prospect. This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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