WASHINGTON – The Bush administration on Friday rejected a petition by American unions seeking an investigation into Chinese labor practices, arguing that there was evidence Chinese practices were improving.
The decision turned down a request filed in June by the AFL-CIO and two members of Congress who contended the Chinese were violating international labor standards and these practices had meant the loss of 1.24 million American jobs as U.S. companies moved plants to China.
In a statement issued by the office of U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, the administration said engagement with China was resulting in improvement in Chinese labor conditions and opening a trade investigation that could lead to economic sanctions against China was not the best way to proceed.
"We do not need to conduct a year-long investigation to know that there are serious concerns with labor rights and working conditions in China," said Sean Spicer, Schwab's chief spokesman.
The petition was an effort by labor groups in an election year to turn up the heat on the administration over record trade deficits the U.S. is running with China, which hit an all-time high of $202 billion last year. The administration had rejected a similar petition filed during the 2004 presidential election year.
Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the labor federation, called the administration's decision a "travesty" that extended the administration's failure to deal effectively with soaring trade deficits that have contributed to the loss of almost 3 million manufacturing jobs since President Bush took office.
"The administration continues to take no meaningful action to support America's workers or stop the abuse of workers in China," Trumka said in a statement.
Spicer said pursuing a trade investigation of China's labor practices, under a provision of U.S. trade law known as Section 301, would "neither shed more light on this problem nor lead to a more effective approach for addressing Chinese workers' rights and labor conditions."
The administration said the United States had been addressing Chinese labor problems through a number of existing programs run by various agencies such as the Labor Department and the Commerce Department.
"While there remains much room for improvement, there is evidence of real progress," the administration statement said. It cited an increase in Chinese wage rates and enhanced safety inspections as a result of U.S. engagement.
AFL-CIO policy director Thea Lee said the claim of rising wages was based on questionable data and the deaths of 127,000 Chinese in industrial accidents highlighted the lack of adequate safety protections.
The petition had contended that China was using child and forced labor and firing, beating or imprisoning workers who attempted to form unions. The petition said such practices kept the wages of Chinese factory workers as low as 15 cents to 50 cents per hour, providing an incentive for American companies to close factories in the United States and move production to China.
The AFL-CIO said the various labor violations had contributed to the loss of an estimated 930,000 manufacturing jobs and 1.24 million total U.S. jobs. It said the actions represented unfair trade practices that could be penalized by economic sanctions if the United States won a case against China before the World Trade Organization.
The AFL-CIO was joined in the petition request by Rep. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee, and by Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., a strong critic of China's human rights record.
Eleven senators and 29 members of the House had written letters in support of pursuing a trade case.