Although China has offered the European Union multiple concessions in a landmark investment agreement, it has firmly refused to budge on a make-or-break issue: labour rights.
EU officials now say Beijing’s refusal to ratify International Labour Organisation (ILO) standards on forced labour will make it politically difficult for the European Parliament – whose endorsement is vital to validate the deal – to vote in its favour.
Last week the parliament passed a resolution to condemn Beijing’s practices in Xinjiang, which said any comprehensive agreement with China “must include adequate commitments to respect international conventions against forced labour”.
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“The political signal is disastrous. This deal mocks the concentration camps and enslavement of a people,” Raphael Glucksmann, a member of the European Parliament from the centre-left Place Publique party, told Politico. “I will be active in organising opposition to this deal.”
“Labour rights in China is a hot potato, particularly given the parliament’s recent urgent resolution on Xinjiang. If there are no proper commitments on ILO, then it’ll be extremely difficult,” a source with knowledge of the thinking of both the EU Parliament and the European Commission – which conducts the negotiations with China – said.
The Commission, the executive arm of the EU, last week told the 27 member states that it had made a “political decision in principle” to take the deal, as it deemed Beijing to have made sufficient concessions on market access for European companies in areas such as telecommunications, financial services and electric cars.
But the EU Commission soon faced questions over its failure to achieve a deal that would also include a commitment from China to uphold ILO standards.
A group of high-level think tankers in Europe specialising on China have criticised the EU approach.
“One of the main problems is that the commitments to improve labour rights remain vague. They do not include critical commitments with regard to forced labour, the right to association and are still open to further negotiations.
“As soon as the deal is approved, it will be harder to press China on this matter, especially now that forced labour seems to have become part of its re-education policy in Xinjiang,” read the joint statement issued by 15 China specialists from across Europe.
China has been accused of detaining around a million mainly Muslim Uygurs and other minorities in detention camps and the extensive use of forced labour. China denies using forced labour and insists the camps are vocational training centres to combat extremism.
Multiple diplomatic sources said they believed a deal could be reached between the EU and China by the end of this year – the self-imposed deadline – but it remains unclear if Beijing intends to make concessions and adopt international labour standards.
On Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the staunchest advocate for an investment deal with China, was confronted on the issue in the federal parliament, the Bundestag.
“In your opinion, can the EU, can Germany agree to an investment agreement if China does not ratify these ILO core standards?” Margarete Bause, from the Green Party, asked her.
Sidestepping her demand for a definitive answer, Merkel replied: “We take these ILO standards very seriously and will make a good balance. I am very well aware of the allegations regarding the Uygurs.”
Beijing’s position on the issue marks a contrast to fellow Communist state Vietnam, whose free trade agreement with the EU, came into force earlier this year.
As part of the deal, Hanoi committed to enacting several fundamental conventions of the ILO, including those on freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, ending forced labour and child labour.
“China will for sure say that we don’t like forced labour either, that there’s no forced labour here, and there are trade unions with Chinese characteristics, so on and so forth,” the European source said.
“But I don’t think [French President Emmanuel] Macron would’ve agreed to something that wasn’t strong on TSD,” he added, referring to “trade and sustainable development”, the category under which ILO standards will be mentioned in the investment deal.
With Vietnam, the source said the EU “took a lot of pushing and shoving” to get an action plan and timetable as well as various commitments from the Hanoi authorities on implementing those ILO conventions.
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