Hindustan Times - 15 February 2021
China’s labour rights issues a threat to its trade deal with EU
Though Beijing has touted its investment pact with the European Union (EU) as a strategic breakthrough, concerns have arisen about the deal, which may not get the final approval of some European lawmakers owing to the labour rights issues in China.
In the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) that was announced on December 30 last year, China had agreed to open some of its restricted markets to European businesses and had agreed to ratify two international conventions on forced labour. However, critics say the deal lacks enforcement measures to ensure Beijing makes meaningful improvements for workers, wrote Mimi Lau for the South China Morning Post (SCMP).
The deal is expected to face intense resistance from some European lawmakers, while international unionists, who say the pact will do nothing to stop human rights abuses or protect labour rights in China, have vowed to ramp up pressure over the deal.
Over the past few years, China has faced mounting criticism, including from the EU and the United States over the alleged use of Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups in forced labour camps, mainly in the Xinjiang region.
Beijing, however, has denied the claims, stating that it runs vocational training centres to combat religious extremism and terrorism, according to SCMP.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) has identified eight fundamental conventions covering areas considered to be basic principles and rights at work, like forced labour, collective bargaining and the right to form trade unions.
Though China, a member of the ILO has already ratified four of the less controversial conventions - on equal remuneration, discrimination, minimum age and child labour - it has not agreed to ratify two conventions on granting workers’ freedom of association and protect their right to organise.
"...The Chinese government has denied the core labour rights of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Independent trade unions are seen in the light of the Polish experience as an essential threat to [Communist] Party rule," said Christoph Scherrer, a professor of globalisation and politics.
The EU should not be silent on human rights abuses though it may, in the short run, be unlikely to convince or push China to do things they don’t want to do through a trade agreement, opined Frank Hoffer, a research fellow at the Global Labour University and a former ILO official.
Mimi further wrote in her article that governments are generally reluctant to ratify conventions that require legal enactment or revision for compliance. Ratification of ILO conventions by member countries could expose them to its supervisory mechanisms for alleged failures in implementation, said Sean Cooney, an international and comparative labour law expert at the University of Melbourne.
"Once they have ratified conventions, countries have to defend their record. Countries with low ratifications, such as the US and China, may be wary of these processes," he said.
Cooney further said that ratifying the forced labour convention could be politically controversial for China, as it requires member states to suppress any forced labour as a means of political coercion, education or as punishment for holding political views or ideologies opposed to the established political, social and economic system.
It is also unlikely for China to go down the same path as Vietnam, which ratified conventions and enacted laws to allow independent worker organisations after it signed a free trade agreement with the EU in 2019.
According to international law experts, the EU-China deal could lead to "incremental improvement" at best, in areas that are not completely incompatible with the nature of China’s political system, reported SCMP.
The deal had not resulted in any new commitments on labour rights, nor had a time frame been set for China to ratify the conventions, said Surya Deva, an associate professor at City University of Hong Kong’s School of Law.
"Even if China ratifies these two conventions related to forced labour in the best-case scenario, there is no guarantee of their meaningful implementation," Deva said.
"Will it be realistic for some Uyghurs to approach a Chinese court against alleged forced labour ? The harsh reality is that unless China allows independent trade unions, creates space for civil society as well as the media to monitor labour rights abuses, and establishes independent courts, the situation will not change much on the ground," he added.
Deva further mentioned that the EU-China deal would have added value if it provided for an external system of monitoring and accountability for systematic labour rights violations.