12/10/2004, 00.00
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Officials cancel work rights conference

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - China has abruptly blocked a meeting of global union and business leaders scheduled for next week that aimed to press Beijing to do more to protect workers' rights.

More than 80 government and union officials from more than 30 countries had been expected to attend a seminar co-sponsored by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Participants were to discuss how OECD guidelines on multinational enterprises could be used to help raise labour standards in China and encourage socially responsible investment.
The meeting, put together after lengthy consultations with Beijing, was effectively cancelled Wednesday when China suddenly rescinded visas issued to participants across the globe.

China cited inconvenient timing. But it seems possible that officials decided that, after all, they did not want foreign union leaders talking about workers' rights to organize, health and safety standards, stopping child labour and preventing discrimination at a high-profile meeting in the capital. The president of New Zealand's Council of Trade Unions said the move raised questions about whether China was "willing to even discuss labour standards."
On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said Beijing "actively participates" in discussions on labour rights.  "I think these accusations are totally groundless," Zhang said at a regular news briefing.

China has become the world's largest, most competitive producer of low- and medium-tech manufactured goods, and nearly every multinational manufacturer has a major foothold in the country. International union officials argue that China's embrace of globalization should extend to labour rights.

But the state's monopoly union, a legacy of socialist central planning, does little to fight for workers in the increasingly capitalism-oriented economy. Authorities forbid workers to organize their own unions. Minimum wage rules, restrictions on work hours and health and safety laws are often abused. In the meantime, social tensions are rising in China. Every day there are reports of demonstrations, disorders and clashes with law enforcement forces. Violence is often sparked by minor incidents as people are increasingly fed up with government corruption, unjust taxes, job loss, unpaid wages and poverty.

Beijing had appeared to be trying to present a friendlier face to workers, with Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, vowing to address issues of unsafe working conditions and unpaid wages affecting tens of millions of Chinese migrant workers.

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