Chinese Government Cancels OECD Meeting in Beijing on Workers’ Rights and Revokes International Trade Union Leaders’ Visas
The central government has cancelled, at extremely short notice, a meeting of union and business leaders scheduled for next week which had aimed to get multinational companies to follow international standards to guarantee Chinese workers’ rights.
John J. Sweeney, President of American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), and around thirty other international trade union leaders received a letter from the PRC government’s Director General of International Cooperation on 3 December informing them that the meeting had been called off and that their visas had been cancelled. According to the Associated Press, the visas of more than 80 government and union officials from more than 30 industrialized countries have been revoked.
The event, which was jointly sponsored by the 30-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Chinese government, was to be the first of its kind in China. Although China is not a member of OECD, the Chinese authorities were closely involved in planning the meeting. It was scheduled to discuss a range of issues including workers’ rights to organize, health and safety standards, child and forced labour, and discrimination at work and to discuss how OECD guidelines on multinational enterprises could be used to raise labour standards in China and encourage socially responsible investment.
On hearing of the meeting’s cancellation, one of its principal organizers, John Evans, general secretary of TUAC (the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD), responded by saying: “It’s the right time, not the wrong time to discuss the rights of workers in China.” He added, “Labour standards of Chinese workers are in the world spotlight and that spotlight is not about to be turned off.”
The AFL-CIO’s John Sweeney said last week that he planned to use the meeting to urge companies to abide by international agreements guaranteeing workers’ rights. The AFL-CIO, a federation of 60 unions, represents 13 million American workers.
Sarah Massey, a spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO, said the cancellation letter from the Chinese government gave no explanation as to why the meeting had been called off. Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, professed no knowledge of either the meeting or the cancellation.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), however, said in a statement that the central government had cancelled the participants’ visas and postponed the seminar indefinitely, on the grounds of “inappropriate and inconvenient” timing. ACTU President Sharan Burrow said: “This is a lost opportunity for Chinese unions and government representatives to discuss areas of consensus ahead of trade negotiations between nations in our region.”
Burrow is currently attending the three-yearly world congress of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) in Japan, and, like many of her fellow international union leaders, she was planning to travel to Beijing for the OECD/TUAC conference right after the ICFTU event. Expressing shock that the Chinese government had cancelled the visas of the international union leaders and other government representatives at the last minute, she said: “If the Chinese authorities are suddenly concerned about discussing issues around corporate behaviour and indeed trade and investment principles more generally then there is some serious cause for concern.”
The OECD Guidelines on Multinationals, a major initiative by member governments aimed at raising standards of international corporate behaviour in the developing world and elsewhere, was one of the key items on the agenda for discussion at the now cancelled Beijing conference. Sharan Burrow stressed that the labour standards of workers in China needed to be discussed and that the international union movement would insist on applying OECD principles in an effort to stop exploitation. “Corporations seeking simply to flee to countries where not only can they get cheap labour but they can actually cut costs in a whole range of areas, put the workers’ lives at risk. These things need to be talked about,” she added.
Ross Wilson, President of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, was also refused access to China. He said that the decision raised “serious questions as to whether they are willing to even discuss labour standards.” In a statement from the NZ-CTU, Wilson noted: “It appears that the position of the Chinese government is that there should be no constraints or standards for any company operating in China.”