Hoffa: Labor Conditions Must Improve in China As top Chinese officials visit Washington for trade talks, an American labor leader is visiting China. Teamsters President James Hoffa has been meeting Chinese officials.

Hoffa: Labor Conditions Must Improve in China

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As Chinese officials visit Washington, an American labor leader is visiting China. And we'll talk about that in our Wednesday focus on the workplace. Today the workplace is in China. Teamsters president James Hoffa wants China to improve its labor conditions, and earlier today we reached him by phone.

Mr. JAMES HOFFA (President, Teamsters): We just got back from the Forbidden City.

INSKEEP: You were at the Forbidden City?

Mr. HOFFA: Yes, we were.

INSKEEP: What did you think?

Mr. HOFFA: Well, it's certainly huge and, you know, and very impressive and something you've read all your life. And it's amazing to see something so historic.

INSKEEP: You know, when the news of James Hoffa in China spread around here, I heard a couple of different reactions. One was surprise. It sounded very interesting to people. But one of our reporters who covers labor asked what took him so long? Have labor unions really lost out over recent years because they've hardly ever been to China?

Mr. HOFFA: Well, I don't know if it's that. I think that you wouldn't have stopped the fact that when you had PNTR passed by Bill Clinton...

INSKEEP: That's Normalized Trade Relations you're talking about. Yeah.

Mr. HOFFA: Right. And there was this flood of American corporations coming to China with the loss of work in the United States and transferred over here. And there is no doubt that these corporations are here - American corporations manufacturing at lower costs and exporting back to the United States. And the question is how do we affect that?

The law was passed and these corporations are here. And obviously, many times it's the same corporations we have contracts with in the United States.

INSKEEP: Well now, let me ask about the reason, of course, that a lot of American labor unions have stayed away - the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which is government-controlled, which has not had the best reputation for protecting workers in the past. Have they changed?

Mr. HOFFA: They've organized Wal-Mart, McDonalds. One of the things we talked about is that they should be organizing the state-run corporations and companies that are here. We had a very frank discussion with them about, you know, what they can be doing. And of course they talked about what we can be doing too.

INSKEEP: Are they legitimately representing the interests of Chinese workers now?

Mr. HOFFA: We questioned them very, very carefully on that, as you know, it's one thing to have numbers, but do you really represent members like we do in the United States, where if somebody is fired, we get their job back? Do you have a grievance procedure? Are you actually raising the standard of living of the workers? Do they have an eight-hour day? And we were surprised to see in some of the big cities the standard of living seems to be going up. So maybe they are finally having an effect.

INSKEEP: Let me ask another question, if I might. China's government is close to passing a new labor law which would give more rights to workers and a little less latitude to employers to - example - do mass firings. I know that your union is in favor of that law. You have charged that American companies are lobbying against it. What evidence do you have?

Mr. HOFFA: Well, it's amazing. Here they've put in a number of proposals to water down the contract agreement. And isn't it funny, it's the same group that is opposing labor law reform in the United States because we're working very hard in the United States to get Employee Free Choice Act.

INSKEEP: Now, I want to ask, Mr. Hoffa, about the logic here and how this might - how a trip like yours might affect American workers. I suppose the logic is, China has very cheap labor, in some cases very poor working conditions. If the wages and working conditions were higher, then there would be less strict competition with American workers and maybe fewer lost American jobs. But I wonder, are wages so low in China that even if they doubled, say, you would still have much cheaper labor in China than in the United States?

Mr. HOFFA: Well, I don't think that we should kid ourselves about the standard of living. There's a dramatic difference between the standard of living here of the average worker and what they make and what the people in the United States make. But any effort we can make to raise those wages, it does make our workers more competitive, and maybe it will keep some jobs in the United States.

INSKEEP: James Hoffa is head of the Teamsters Union. We reached him in Beijing. Thanks very much.

Mr. HOFFA: Well, thank you so much.

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