U.S., China Continue Cooperation on Worker Protection

By Jane Morse
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - Chinese workers are enjoying improved protections and fewer injuries thanks to intensive cooperative efforts between the Chinese and U.S. governments, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

"Over the past two years, the Labor Department has worked with the People's Republic of China to strengthen several strategic areas of worker protection:  employment standards, migrant workers, pensions, and health and safety - especially mine safety," Deputy Secretary of Labor Steven Law said in a July 21 press release.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and four of her assistant secretaries visited China in June 2004 to discuss bilateral cooperation. As a follow-up, the two countries have exchanged delegations of experts, best practices and information.

The Labor Department also is funding a $2.3 million safety project that helps China improve worker safety and safety law enforcement in coal mines. (See related article.)

The cooperative efforts have been yielding impressive results, according to the department.  At mines participating in the safety project, for example, the number of injuries decreased from 7.7 per 1,000 miners in 2003 to 2.56 per 1,000 miners in 2004.  In the first half of 2005, that number was further reduced to 1.86 per 1,000 miners.

Efforts to educate Chinese migrant workers on their workplace rights also have succeeded.  Among migrant workers in a Labor-sponsored rule-of-law project, the percentage of workers able to identify three or more workplace rights increased to 96 percent in the first quarter of 2006 from 23 percent in 2005.  During the same period, the department reported that 99 percent of the workers were able to identify at least one place to go for legal assistance - up from 12 percent in 2005.

The Chinese government currently is revising its laws to improve worker protections.  With the assistance from the United States, China is developing a labor contract law as well as laws to handle dispute resolution and social security.

China also is working with the United States to improve its enforcement of labor laws and system of inspections and increase the quality of labor inspectors and labor inspections, according to the press release.

Given the work that the Department of Labor and other agencies have done with Chinese authorities on workplace safety and workers' rights in China, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) has decided to deny a petition filed by a major U.S. labor organization, the AFL-CIO, under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, USTR said in a press release issued July 21.

Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 authorizes USTR to investigate allegations of unfair trade practices and determine whether those practices affect U.S. commerce.  On June 8, the AFL-CIO filed a petition requesting USTR to launch a one-year Section 301 investigation of workers’ rights in China. The petition - similar to a 2004 petition also filed by the AFL-CIO - also asked USTR to impose trade remedies on China upon conclusion of the investigation.

See also "U.S.-China Labor Issues Generate Strong Emotions."

For more information on U.S. policies, see The United States and China and Rule of Law.

A news release and a fact sheet on U.S.-China cooperation on workers' rights are available on the Department of Labor's Web site. A statement from the U.S. Trade Representative's spokesman regarding the Section 301 petition is available on the USTR Web site.