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Howard’s End: Forced Labour In China

Despite a decade of evidence that goods manufactured in Chinese and Tibetan forced labour camps are being exported to the West, the practice continues. New Zealand now needs guarantees that products we import do not come from these camps. John Howard writes.

Although there have been some societal advances in the People's Republic of China, the politicians in Beijing continue to depend upon its Laogai system as a tool for oppression - despite its forthcoming entry into the WTO.

Laogai, (prison) is a Mandarin term that translates literally as meaning reform-through-labour. But within China the term has come to have a wider colloquial meaning.

According to the US-based Laogai Research Institute, there remains, as at 5 September 2000, 1200 forced labour camps in 31 Chinese provinces' including Tibet.

In China, the word Laogai can strike fear in the hearts and minds of the average Chinese person.

Whether individuals are thrown in prison (jianyu) reform-through-labour camps (laogai dui) re-education through labour camp (laojiao suo) juvenile offender facility (shaoguan suo) or a county detention centre (kanshou suo) they are deprived of their freedom.

They are prisoners by any common sense definition.

Citizens of China can still be punished for exercising their internationally recognised human rights or may be convicted during political campaigns or through procedures that violate standards of legal fairness.

There are good reasons why western countries should not import products from countries with forced labour camps. (a) from a human rights perspective a system of forced labour breeds extreme dehumanisation as prisoners are nothing more than tools for their labour (b) it is illegal by international law to import any product that is produced in whole or in part by prison labour, and beyond that, (c) forced labour of any kind upsets the balance of trade by allowing one economy an advantage, as it is not required to pay its labourers for their services and (d) an importer of products from forced labour camp countries can gain a financial advantage.

According to the Laogai Research Institute, few government requests for investigation or visitation to confirm the source of goods receive prompt cooperation from the Chinese Ministry of Justice.

Some requests for visitation can take eighteen months and even then, the precise meaning and language of the request can be debated at length.

In the US, the Clinton administration policy was to separate human rights matters from Most Favoured Nation status which is currently enjoyed by China - even before there was time for attempts at enforcement of a memorandum of understanding about forced labour which had been signed between the two countries.

In many cases Chinese officials either cannot, or will not, substantiate claims that exports and products intended only for domestic consumption are seperated.

One well-known case where evidence could not be provided was that of Zhejiang No. 4 Prison otherwise known as Hanzhou Wulin Machinery Factory.

There are many other cases where the Chinese could not provide evidence to substantiate their claims that products for export were being made purely by civilians working in a prison factory. Two such cases were; Beishu Shengjian Graphite Mine and Hangzhou Qianjiang Hardware Tool Plant.

There are many other documented cases that reveal that even US government agencies are at fault when, after receiving denials from Chinese government officials, no further investigation or visitation efforts were made.

In global business directories companies are listed which seek to export their products abroad. Known Laogai forced labour camps appear.

If New Zealand is serious about enforcement of laws relating to human rights and moreover, if we are serious about maintaining the standards of fairness in free trade, then it is necessary to draft proper and enforceable rules.

On the other hand if China is serious about observing its trade agreements and enhancing its human rights record, then it must demonstrate a willingness and determination to immediately abolish forced labour camps.

In the meantime, when products enter New Zealand, the Government must insist on written guarantees that imported products are not sourced from forced labour camps. If that guarantee is not forthcoming the product should be detained.

And even when guarantees are provided, New Zealand must retain the right to investigate claims and also insist on visitation rights to the country of origin to confirm the claims.

Without that, free trade is a myth.

In the final analysis it is up to each caring New Zealander, as consumers, to ask a simple question of retailers. "Can you guarantee that this product is not made by or sourced from a country who operates forced labour camps?"

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