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GENEVA — Representatives of global labor unions lashed out last week at what they described as the exploitation of millions of workers in the textiles, apparel and footwear industries in developing countries. In particular, they singled out China as an area of concern in the apparel and textile industry, given its growing market dominance.

This story first appeared in the June 17, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

At the annual meeting here of the International Labour Organization, speakers also urged governments and the international community to act to deter serious abuses of workers’ basic rights that have become a by-product of multinational corporations’ drive to cut manufacturing costs.

“Today, real wages in the industries are falling and working conditions are worsening everywhere in a desperate race to the bottom, with core labor standards jettisoned in the name of competition,” said Neil Kearney, general secretary of the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation.

Kearney said the problems are “set to intensify after the disappearance of textile and clothing trade restraints at the end of 2004 as employers who resist relocating to China start to lower standards to stay in business.”

The union chief argued that Chinese standards are a key driver of standards in the rest of the world and argued the world’s most populous nation “must be persuaded to join with others to put an international floor under wages and working conditions.”

However, Chinese Vice Minister of Labor Li Qiyan told delegates from 176 countries the world needs to attach strategic importance to poverty reduction and to promote the establishment of “a new international economic order that is fair, rational and in line with the levels of development and requirements of every country in order to guarantee the right of all countries, especially the developing ones, to develop.”

Li added, “The developed countries must shoulder more responsibilities.”

Similarly, Chen Lantong, China’s employer delegate to the conference, said under present circumstances, China regards “economic development and better performance of enterprises as a fundamental way to remove poverty and expand employment.”

Chen said China’s employers’ confederation would help companies to respect ILO standards and international norms.

However, a global report of violations of trade union rights in 2002 published Tuesday highlighted that abuses are still widespread in China, Cambodia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Lesotho and other poor countries.

Kearney said the report found that in Shenzen, China, “workers slave 11 hours a day, often seven days a week.”

In Cambodia, it said, “workers at [garment maker] Gold Fame Enterprises often worked 17 hours a day, seven days a week in busy periods.”

The report by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which represents 158 million workers in 231 affiliated organizations in 150 countries and territories, said repressive measures were deployed against textile workers in factories located in China’s Guangdong and Sichuan provinces.

The ICFTU report also documents serious breaches against textile and clothing workers in countries including Bangladesh, Thailand, El Salvador, South Africa, Uganda, Lesotho and Morocco.

In Bangladesh, the report pointed out, health and safety conditions are a recurrent problem.

“There has been a spate of fatal accidents in recent years, particularly in textile factories, causing the deaths of hundreds of workers, the majority of whom are women,” according to the report.

The study also highlights that “employers and investors from South Korea, Japan and other Asian countries have expressed their opposition to the creation of unions, predicting conflict and tension….Workers are regularly sacked, beaten up or subjected to false charges by the police for being active in unions.”

John Hilary, trade analyst with the British antipoverty group, Actionaid, told reporters that even though the conditions in some of the textile and clothing factories in Bangladesh are “grotesque,” they are jobs poorer families identify with and choose, as they are better to some other alternative informal work.

Finally, the ICFTU report concluded the ongoing refusal by some governments to respect core labor standards underlines the need “for additional mechanisms to support the ILO role to promote and guarantee workers’ rights.”

These must include, the ICFTU said, “changes to the rules and procedures of the international bodies responsible for finance, investment and trade.”