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Sanctions Wouldn't Defy the WTO

March 21, 2004

In "AFL-CIO Seeks U.S. Trade Sanctions Against China" (March 17), a think-tank researcher raises the specter of a "potentially costly trade war" if the U.S. imposed trade sanctions to end China's persistent violation of worker rights, as the AFL-CIO has demanded in a petition to the president.

According to the researcher, China could seek permission from the World Trade Organization to retaliate against such sanctions. This claim is erroneous. U.S. trade sanctions to enforce workers' rights in China would not violate WTO rules and would therefore provide no basis for the WTO to authorize retaliatory sanctions by China.

WTO rules permit countries to impose sanctions to promote human life and health and public morals, including worker rights.

The article also cites experts' assertions that China has many competitive advantages other than low wages, and that higher wages in China would move the jobs to other low-wage economies, not to the U.S. These two arguments contradict each other. But even if both were true, they do not address the AFL-CIO's claims.

Using the highly conservative economic model of the International Trade Commission, the AFL-CIO petition estimates that the U.S. would gain more than 727,000 manufacturing jobs if China enforced basic worker rights -- even taking account of the jobs that would move to other low-wage economies.

The ordeal of these workers is not lightened by the fact that millions of jobs may have moved to China for other reasons.

Mark Barenberg

Professor of Law, Columbia University, New York

(Barenberg is author of the AFL-CIO petition seeking trade sanctions for China's violations of worker rights.)

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