As millions of children in the West prepare to open billions of dollars worth of Christmas gifts later this month, a study by an Asian labor watch group is reminding parents and trade policy wonks alike that most of their gifts came from China – a nation with preferential trade status that features “abysmal” factory conditions like the kind abolished in the U.S. early last century.

“The workers live in unhealthy and overcrowded dormitories and only have a bed where they can store their things,” says a report issued by the Hong Kong-based Asia Monitor Resource Center.

Worse, the report states, many of the factories are owned by Chinese companies subcontracting to U.S.-based firms.

In its report, the center said its operatives interviewed employees in a dozen factories, mostly in the southern Guangdong province, home to more than 6,000 factories that employ millions of workers – mostly women ages 17-25. Most of the toys for the West are produced there, the report said.

Workers are often required to put in 16 hour days for six, sometimes seven, days a week and are being paid the equivalent of $50 per month.

The center’s report said after the women “leave their village, they can only continue to live in the city because of the contract with their employer, who at times confiscates their papers to prevent them from quitting. As soon as they reach 25, they are considered too old to work. They often turn to prostitution so as not to return to their birthplace, where they are no longer respected.”

Due to preferential trade agreements between China and the U.S., the abuse is likely to continue unabated. Last year, the U.S. trade deficit was more than $370 billion, according to the Department of Commerce, and nearly one-third of that amount – more than $84 billion – came from America’s trade imbalance with China.

“The gap between exports and imports [with China] was 40 percent wider than the 1999 deficit,” the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper reported Feb. 22. “Thanks partly to the lowering of global trade barriers, the deficit has been setting records for the last three years, with low-cost manufacturing centers in Asia and Latin America flooding the United States with cheap goods.”

And, as the U.S. enters a recession and some 415,000 workers have lost jobs this year alone, those “cheap goods” are likely to wield much more influence with voters and policymakers than are the rights of workers half a world away.

Some international labor experts are not surprised, however, by the lack of concern over China’s treatment of its workers.

“With the globalization of the international economy, many multinational corporations have chosen to shift their manufacturing base to countries which, like China, offer low wages, weak labor laws and suppression or control of all trade union activity,” said an analysis by the International Labor Rights Fund. “Reports … indicate near-nonexistent enforcement of legal protections for workers at foreign invested enterprises.”

Persecution of workers is also rife.

“Working two or three hours overtime on a normal workday, with only one or two days off every month, is not uncommon,” noted sociologist Anita Chan, who has conducted research in footwear factories in China and who also documented practices of bonded labor, corporal punishment and hazardous health and safety conditions.

The abuse of Chinese workers is further detailed in a new book, “China’s Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy,” published by Asia Monitor Resource Center. The authors debunk “the conventional wisdom that Chinese workers are thriving because the Chinese economy is booming.”

Despite China’s poor record on working conditions, Beijing was admitted into the World Trade Organization last year – a mistake, according to American unions whose membership has suffered over the past decade as more U.S. jobs are exported overseas.

“In China, workers have no rights to join a union or have a meaningful voice in the political system,” said a Nov. 15 statement by the AFL-CIO, one of the nation’s largest unions with 13 million members.

“Multinational corporations are likely to shift even more production there, which in turn could lead developing nations to weaken their worker-protection laws to avoid losing market share to China,” warned AFL-CIO President John Sweeny.

At a meeting in Qatar last month, the 142-member WTO “rejected extremely reasonable and moderate proposals to cooperate with the International Labor Organization in a substantive dialogue on workers’ rights,” Sweeny said.

Old news?

Poor working conditions in Chinese factories, as well as a lack of workers’ rights, are not new. Other groups have documented worker abuse and working conditions long considered unfathomable in the U.S.

In February 1999, a report released by the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee found that workers in “south China producing clothes illustrated with Disney characters are working for cripplingly low wages and in poor conditions.”

“Workers from one factory reported being paid only 10 cents above their standard wage for five-hour overtime shifts,” said the group’s report, adding that “in another factory, employees regularly work 16 hours, seven days a week.”

“Workers in a third factory couldn’t afford to go home for the Chinese New Year holiday because they had not been paid for three months,” said the report.

Yet, despite repeated documentation of poor working conditions in China, policymakers, members of Congress and the Bush administration are still pushing for more free trade of the kind that would allow more U.S. companies to set up shop in China – enlarging the trade deficit and doing little to protect the rights of Chinese workers.

After news on Nov. 20 that the nation’s economy had officially slipped into a recession, Commerce Secretary Don Evans used the occasion to prod Congress into giving the president more independent authority to negotiate trade agreements.

“Today’s numbers also make it clearer than ever that U.S. leadership in the global marketplace is crucial to our own economic vitality,” Evans said. “For the president to assert leadership, Congress must pass Trade Promotion Authority,” or the authority to negotiate trade agreements that Congress votes on “as is,” without amendment.

“Open trade is not just an economic opportunity, it is a moral imperative,” Bush said in a speech earlier this year.

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