Vol. IV, Bulletin No.18.                                                         September 23, 1999 

At a Conference of Forced Labor Camp Survivors

China's 'Holy Trouble-Makers' Speak Out

I've thought of those questions before, and then again a few days ago as I listened to the heart-wrenching testimonies of a dozen Laogai survivors.  Harry Wu, who organized the conference at which they spoke, gave voice there to thoughts similar to mine.

"This is a warning to those who are oppressors," he said. "The archive of crimes against humanity will be open."

Bearing Witness To a System That Still Thrives in China

About 80 Laogai survivors, young and old, male and female, attended the September 17-19 conference, "Voices from the Laogai," marking 50 years of China's forced labor camp system.  Never before had so many Laogai survivors joined together to condemn a system that still thrives in China.

After listening to the testimony of five survivors, Actor Richard Gere called them "holy troublemakers and sacred truth-tellers"--roles he deemed especially necessary today when corporations like Boeing and Airbus and media magnates like Rupert Murdoch are "making deals [with China] and getting away with it."

The 10 to 15 minutes allotted to each of the 22 men and women who testified could not fully capture their stories. Several tried to hold back tears, but they failed, and so did many of us in the audience.

Lengthy written testimonies, plus the analyses of scholars such as Perry Link and the testimony of a Vietnamese camp survivor, Doan Viet Hoat, will be published in book form.

(Check the Laogai Foundation's Website at http://www.laogai.org for more information.)

A Business Report on Sales by Laogai Industries

Proof that forced labor camps are thriving in China comes from an unusual source: a business directory compiled by the foremost U.S. credit reporting corporation, Dun & Bradstreet. The D&B Directory of Key Manufacturing Companies in the People's Republic of China 1995/96 reveals that 99 Laogai enterprises had a total annual sales of $842.7 million.

The D&B directory did not identify those Laogai manufacturing enterprises. That was done by Laogai Research Foundation researchers by comparing the companies on the D&B list with the 1,000 forced labor establishments identified by the Laogai Research Foundation from governmental and other sources in China. In fact, two of the entries in the D&B directory explicitly list the enterprises as Laogai camps.

A Former Slave Laborer Well Knows This Big Loagai Factory

One business in the D&B directory, the Nanboa Salt Works, is known personally by Wei Jingsheng, a Laogai Foundation board member. He worked there as a slave laborer. At a June 30 press conference Wei expressed consternation at the inclusion of his former place of imprisonment.  He called it one of the largest salt chemical factories in Asia, and said: "Every year [its] billions of yuan in profit contribute to the Chinese government's efforts to oppress its own people."

The listing of such camps in the D&B directory "shows that Laogai industries continue to search for international market," says Harry Wu, the Foundation's executive director.

In responding to media inquiries, a D&B spokesperson acknowledged that some companies listed in the directory are indeed "correctional institutions that conduct legitimate manufacturing activities."

(Again, for more information check http://www.laogai.org.)

Open Letter to Nike's CEO, Philip Knight

"The fear, secrecy, and repression must end."

That's the theme of an open letter to Nike CEO Philip Knight signed by 43 worker rights groups and advocates from 15 countries around the world. The letter was released on September 22, the day of Nike's annual shareholder meeting held in Hilversum, the Netherlands, Nike's new European headquarters.

Seventeen months ago, in a widely reported speech at Washington's National Press Club, Knight announced a series of measures to improve conditions for the 530,000 foreign workers making Nike-brand products. "Many of us...hoped that this announcement might signal a change," the letter said. "These hopes have proved false."

The letter presents Knight with detailed evidence based recent on-site investigations of conditions in Nike factories. The field research discovered not just "unconscionably low" pay but many other violations of worker rights. Among the non-wage problems listed in the letter are:

The letter credits Nike with making some progress on health conditions "in at least one shoe factory [in Vietnam] and hopefully in others" by replacing highly poisonous glue with safer water-based products. But such "small steps are a long way from being adequate," because, among other reasons:
"Whenever we speak to workers producing for your suppliers, almost inevitably we hear the same story--of brutal management practices, manifestly inadequate wages, and repression of workers' right to organize."
What About Nike's Presence in Vietnam and China?

Moreover: "Your country continues to source products from totalitarian states where workers' human rights, including their right to form unions, are brutally suppressed. If corporations choose to source their products from such places they have a huge responsibility to work actively to promote positive change. Instead, Nike refuses even to make public statements calling for greater respect for human rights in those countries."

In the case of China, the letter urges Nike to grant unions and human rights groups access to its factories and to publicly call upon the Chinese government to permit free trade unions.

(The full text of the open letter, plus background information, can be found at
http://www.web.net/~msn, the Website of the Maquila Solidarity Network in Canada.  The joint open letter was initiated by the Nike Watch Campaign in Australia (http://www.caa.org.au/campaigns/nike). Nike's response to the open letter, if it makes one, may be found on its Website at http://www.nikebiz.com/labor/index.shtml.)

As editor of Human Rights Watch I am among those who signed the open letter to Nike. Was I wrong in doing so? After all, how do I know that some of Nike's contractors are not really prison enterprises? Nike would not be the first U.S. corporation to be unwittingly collaborating with one of the thousands of Laogai businesses.

This issue won't go away, if only because it transcends Nike, and I'll get back to it in a future Bulletin.

The WTO's Myopia on Environmental Concerns

Just as war is too important to be left to generals, has world trade become too important to be left to trade ministers?  Yes, says Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation.

The question and the answer are crucial to the next top-level conference of the World Trade Organization, to be held in Seattle November 30 through December 3, when trade ministers from more than 130 countries will shape policies are the new millennium.

In Congressional testimony on August 5, Van Putten urged reforming the WTO so that it would involve the participation of environmental ministries on an equal footing with trade ministries. "The environment needs an equal place at the negotiating table," Van Putten said. He characterized both U.S. trade policy and the WTO as "at best ambivalent and at worst hostile to the environment."

"Tepid [American] rhetoric is no substitute for vigorous leadership," the National Wildlife Federation president said. "Without real change in U.S. policy and in the WTO, the public will rightfully reject proposals to further liberalize trade at the expense of its values."

My comment: Substitute worker rights for Van Putten's references to the environment, and you have a pretty accurate critique of the U.S. stance on another important issue.

(See http://www.nwf.org/nwf/international/news/wto%5Frls.html for the Van Putten's oral and written testimony to the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee's subcommittee on trade.)

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. IV-17, September 23, 1999
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 1999
hrfw@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

Back to Home Page
A short cut to a list of previous Bulletins in 1999, 1998, 1997, and 1996