Migrant Workers

China Deals Must Not Come at the Cost of Human Rights

Commentary, 27 June 2011

By John Morrison, Chief Executive, IHRB

This op-Ed was originally published on News.Sky.com.

Economic growth and prosperity have lifted millions of people out of poverty since China reformed its economy four decades ago. A peaceful, stable, and prosperous China is in the interest of the world. At the same time, China has enormous human rights challenges.

The use of forced and prison labour, poor treatment of minorities, including Tibetans, harsh punishments for dissidents, and an overall environment of political suppression must be acknowledged.

The question for British businesses seeking trade deals in China is not "if", but "how".

In principle, there is nothing wrong with British firms doing business with China.

More trade can create a virtuous cycle, where British consumers can get access to cheaper goods and services, and British exports to China can create jobs at home and in China.

But serious questions about the conditions in which Chinese factories employ workers must be addressed.

Forced labour is prevalent in certain parts of China, and some factories make use of prison labour to produce goods that reach international markets.

Workers in China cannot form independent trade unions, and China discriminates against certain religious minorities.

Conditions in sectors such as mining are abysmal – China has one of the highest rates of worker fatalities in mines.

There has been progress in addressing some of these problems. The new Contract Labour Law brings China much closer to international standards on issues such as overtime, if the law is applied across the entire country.

But other serious issues remain about the manner in which Chinese companies operate – both at home and abroad.

For example, China's investments in Africa have raised concerns, particularly in war-torn regions where its acquisition of minerals may fuel conflict.

British businesses working in China must ensure they do not become complicit in human rights abuses, and must use their influence to improve safety standards and respect for the rights of Chinese workers just as they would if they employed the workers in Britain.

Earlier this month, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed a set of Guiding Principles on business and human rights, a process supported by both the Chinese and British Governments.

British companies must abide by these rules so that their pursuit of markets and profits does not occur at the cost of human rights. They must also encourage their Chinese partners to do the same.

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