Furor Grows Over China: AFL-CIO Files 301 Claim With More in the Wings

The election-year debate over the outsourcing of U.S. jobs just got more intense — and the apparel industry is taking center stage.

The Bush administration will have 45 days to determine whether to accept the AFL-CIO petition and launch an investigation into China’s labor practices. If the administration takes the case, it will have up to one year to investigate and decide on an action.

If it doesn’t take the case, said Thea Lee, the AFL-CIO’s assistant director for international economics, “We’ll make it a campaign issue.”

Officials at the Chinese Embassy here did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The Bush administration has come under intense fire from Democrats over the outsourcing of U.S. jobs and what they claim are weak labor standards in free-trade pacts the administration has negotiated.

Sen. John Kerry, the prospective Democratic presidential nominee, who has been endorsed by the AFL-CIO, has fired away at the President and made job losses a major campaign issue. He has also promised to institute a 120-day review of existing trade agreements to strengthen labor and environmental provisions if he wins the presidency.

Although Kerry’s campaign did not return phone calls, the Senator told the New York Times in its Tuesday edition that he is sympathetic to the union’s complaint. He said he would make workers’ rights in the U.S. and overseas a “fundamental part of American trade policy.”

Critics of the petition claim Bush would have nothing to gain by taking on the case and imposing sanctions. He won’t win the union vote in the presidential election, they said, and any sanctions could strain relations with China.

Bruce Raynor, president of the apparel, textile and hotel workers’ union UNITE/HERE, said the overriding reasons for Bush to review the case and impose sanctions are job loss and protection of workers’ rights, not union votes.

“When companies lay off thousands of workers, they are laying off union and nonunion workers,” Raynor said. “Job loss is not a question of union workers or union institutions. It cuts across all boundaries. George Bush, by not acting here, stands to become very vulnerable on this issue if he will do nothing on behalf of American workers.”

The AFL-CIO charged in the petition that China has already taken 727,000 jobs from the U.S.
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