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Human Rights Group Accuses China of Violating Workers' Rights - 2002-08-02

A report by a human rights group accuses China of violating workers' rights. The group predicts labor unrest will grow.

The group, Human Rights Watch, accuses China of violating workers' rights during recent crackdowns on labor protests.

In a report, the New York-based group calls on the Chinese government to allow independent unions to form. Nicolas Becquelin, a researcher in Hong Kong with the organization, Human Rights in China, said "they demanded the right to set up independent trade unions. In China, there is no such right. There is normally one state-controlled trade union, which … is actually representing more the interests of the government and the Communist Party than really defending the workers."

In the spring, authorities broke up protests by thousands of laid-off oil workers, and protest leaders were detained. Some of them remain in custody.

The Human Rights Watch report, released Friday, calls on the government to release the jailed labor leaders. Mr. Becquelin said the report shows the government's hard-line toward disgruntled workers. "It's a very heavy-handed repression against anyone trying to set up an independent trade union. ... That means police officials as well as government officials from the municipality going to workers' houses and threatening the family that, if workers continue to demonstrate, they will get into trouble, get arrested," he said.

Tens-of-millions of Chinese workers have lost their jobs since the mid-1990's, as state-owned industries struggle to survive. Unofficial estimates of jobless workers and farmers go as high as 170 million.

China officially says it has seven-million unemployed living in urban areas. Foreign economists say Beijing underestimates the numbers by keeping laid-off workers on company books, and not including jobless farm workers.

With China now in the World Trade Organization, analysts predict more layoffs, as the country opens its doors wider to foreign competitors. Mr. Becquelin with Human Rights in China says that means more labor protests are likely.

China's leaders worry that labor unrest could lead to widespread social instability. They are pushing efforts to create new jobs and keep the economy growing, to absorb jobless workers.