China's Workforce Gets Rights

China has enacted a new law giving more protection to its workers. It's considered the most important labor legislation in China in more than a decade. It has been the subject of intense debate, including among foreign labor organizations and multinational companies.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Well, China has enacted a new law giving more protection to its workers.

It's considered the most important labor legislation in China in more than a decade, and, of course, it affects the people who are making so many products that end up in the United States. This law has been the subject of intense debate involving foreign multinational companies and labor organizations.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN: When China's government published its first draft of the new labor contract law in April of 2006, foreign organizations such as the American Chambers of Commerce in China warned that the law could drive up labor costs and prompt foreign companies to take their business elsewhere.

Chinese and international companies particularly didn't like a provision saying that they had to get the approval of unions or worker representatives before firing workers or changing company rules that affect them.

Greg Tarpinian is executive director of Change to Win, a coalition of U.S. labor unions. He says he's seen such objections before.

Mr. GREG TARPINIAN (Executive Director, Change to Win): The American Chamber in China is operating the same way as the U.S. Chamber in the U.S. Whenever confronted with anything that would enhance worker rights, they are going to oppose or do what they can to water them down.

KUHN: In the final version of the law, companies just have to consult with unions before changing company rules. Last year, the government solicited public comments on the draft law, and got 190,000 responses. That's an unprecedented level of public participation in a country where government ministries draft most laws and then have them rubber stamped by the legislature.

Beijing University labor law expert Jia Junling says the new law has done a decent job of balancing the interests of workers and employers.

Professor JIA JUNLING (Labor Law Expert, Beijing University): (Through translator) If some provisions in this law are titled in favor of the workers, I don't think there's anything wrong with that. It's clear that between employers and workers, the workers are the weaker of the two, especially given the oversupply of labor in China. Without strong regulation, it would be hard for workers to secure their rights.

KUHN: With income equality on the rise, President Hu Jintao's administration has made cleaning up bad labor practices a priority. Police this month freed more than 500 slave laborers from brick kilns and coal mines in two northern Chinese provinces. And the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions has launched a campaign to set up branches in hundreds of foreign companies, including Wal-Mart.

Greg Tarpinian, who recently met with Chinese union leaders in Beijing, says he'll be watching to see whether the unions can rise to their new role.

Mr. TARPINIAN: We've always had a degree of power in the society by law. They have never had to operate in the face of private capital. It's always been the context of state enterprises where the class conflicts were muted.

KUHN: China's state-controlled unions have traditionally often sided with the government instead of the workers, and authorities continue to suppress independent labor organizers. Until this changes, it will be difficult to have - as they used to say here - workers of the world unite.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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