China's ignorance of global labor standards and its low wages pose a big threat to the workers of other Asian economies, union officials at an international meeting in Japan say.
The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) is holding its first conference in Asia in the southern Japanese city of Miyazaki, drawing some 1,400 delegates from more than 150 countries.
China is not a member of the ICFTU and has sent no representative to the quadrennial meeting, but its presence is looming large over the six-day conference which started yesterday.
Officials of trade unions in Asia warned that China's low labor standards have created cheap production that is pressuring manufacturers and their treatment of workers across the region.
"China remains as a threat," said Noriyuki Suzuki, general secretary of the ICFTU-Asian and Pacific Regional Organization, which unifies labor unions in the Pacific-Rim.
"The industrial competitiveness of China is enormous and affecting East, South and Southeast Asia," Suzuki told reporters. "On the back of relatively cheap labor, China is having a big impact on the region."
A ban imposed by the Chinese government on independent trade unions is a major obstacle to improving working conditions in the country, said Lee Cheuk-yan (李卓人), general secretary of Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions and a legislative councillor in the territory.
"Chinese workers have no right to organize. I think that is the basic problem," Lee said.
Wages of Chinese workers are one-10th of those in Hong Kong, discouraging industry in the territory where the jobless rate has gone up to 6.7 percent from a bottom of around two percent in the late 1990s, Lee said.
Unemployment concerns are now shifting from the manufacturing industry to the white collar sector with Hong Kong companies in the service sector opening their back offices in Beijing, he said.
"It is not a fair, level playing field when we compare with other countries, where workers are free to organize," Lee said. "It's a big threat not just to Asian countries but to Chinese workers themselves."
Concern about China's labor market grew last week after Beijing suddenly called off a meeting with officials of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development over labor conditions in the country.
"We have a really big concern about the cancellation," said Kyoshi Sasamori, president of Japan's largest labor union, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, known as RENGO.
"We are worried that China may go against the direction the West is heading for," Sasamori said. "We will closely monitor whether China is willing to open up its huge labor market or will remain a closed society."
An ICFTU official close to the issue said: "We are at a loss as the meeting was seen as a first step to let China sit at the table of dialogue. We have to firmly ask China to make it clear why they cancelled it."
Last month, China said it had issued new rules aimed at protecting workers, including ordering employers to pay owed wages and encouraging people to report labor rights violations.
Union activists, however, said that while the communist state's labor laws look good on paper, they mean little, as government officials seldom enforce the rules, favoring employers over workers.