The Conditions of the Working Class in China

The Conditions of the Working Class in China

On March 16 the AFL-CIO filed a remarkable petition with the U.S. government asking that the U.S. trade representative take action to promote the human rights of China’s factory workers. The petition charged that China’s brutal repression of internationally recognized workers’ rights constitutes an unfair trade practice under section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974. It was the first time in the history of section 301 that a petition has invoked the violation of workers’ rights as an unfair trade practice, although it is quite common for corporations to use section 301 to challenge other unfair trade practices, such as violation of intellectual property rights.

The petition thoroughly documents the Chinese government’s systematic violation of workers’ rights and demonstrates how such exploitation costs hundreds of thousands of U.S. manufacturing jobs and puts downward pressure on wages around the world.

The petition attracted enormous attention around the world. BusinessWeek claimed it was a “milestone” that “articulated a coherent intellectual position that makes a logical link between trade and labor rights.” Even the Washington Post editorial page, which has always been fierce in its opposition to linking trade and labor rights, stated that the petition deserved “qualified sympathy.”

On April 29 the Bush administration rejected the petition. While refuting none of the charges made in the petition, the administration referred to it as an example of “economic isolationism.” Tom Donahue, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was perhaps more honest about why the petition was rejected: “Had the administration accepted the petition . . . we would have married forever human rights and trade, and that would have been a huge mistake.”

One wishes Mr. Donahue had explained himself a bit more: a mistake for whom? For ruthlessly exploited workers in China? For laid off manufacturing workers in the United States? Or for American business, which is complicit in and profits from, the exploitation described below?

We are glad to reprint an edited excerpt (minus the footnotes) of the AFL-CIO’s petition. The principal author of the petition is Mark Barenberg, a professor of international law at Columbia University.



Each year, millions of Chinese citizens travel from impoverished inland villages to take their first industrial jobs in China’s export factories. Young and mostly female, they are sent by their parents in search of wages to supplement their families’ income. They join an enormous submerged caste of temporary factory workers who are stripped of civil and political rights by China’s system of internal passport controls.

They enter the factory system and often step into a nightmare of twelve-hour to eighteen-hour work days ...

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: