No free trade with China without human rights

Workers at the Foxconn factory in Guangzhou in the Chinese province of Shenzen.
Switzerland negotiated a free trade agreement with China between January 2010 and July 2013. Swiss NGOs, including Alliance Sud, urged the Federal Council to ensure that the agreement include respect for and promotion of human rights.

From the very onset, the China Platform, which includes Alliance Sud together with Solidar Suisse, Berne Declaration, the Society for Threatened Peoples and the Swiss-Tibetan Friendship Association, called for the free trade agreement to include binding human rights clauses. The central concern here was the rights of often oppressed Chinese minorities. These clauses should also include respect for the core labour standards of the International Labour Organization (ILO), namely freedom of association and protection of the right to organize, the prohibition of all forms of forced labour, the elimination of child labour and of discrimination against migrant workers.

Lobbying in Parliament

Alliance Sud and the China Platform lobbied intensely in the National Council and the Council of States. They were successful in that in 2010, the National Council Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC-N) came out in favour of including labour rights in the free trade agreement.

Building public awareness

In September 2012 Switzerland played host to the renowned Chinese dissident Harry Wu. He was then residing in Washington, and died on 26 April 2016, having spent 19 years in Chinese labour camps. In his meetings with politicians, authorities, citizens and the media, Wu emphasized that a number of products were being sold on the world market that come from over 1,000 Chinese labour camps in which three to five million people are being held.
Given the heightened risk of such goods making their way into the Swiss market under facilitated conditions, the China Platform renewed its call on the Federal Council for human rights clauses to be enshrined in the agreement, thereby allowing for closer monitoring of the origin of goods from China.

Petition to Federal Councillor Schneider-Ammann

On 25 January 2013 during the World Economic Forum in Davos, the China Platform delivered to Minister of the Economy Johann Schneider-Ammann a petition with over 23,000 signatures. It requested that the free trade agreement should contain binding passages on human rights and labour standards and that a commission be set up to monitor compliance. There should also be clearly formulated procedures for the event that ILO standards or human rights in general are violated.

Agreement without human rights

On 6 July 2013 Switzerland and China signed an agreement consisting of over 1,100 pages. It contains no mention of the term "human rights" nor any binding provision on labour rights. The agreement does indeed refer to a side agreement on labour and employment matters but – unlike other comparable parallel agreements – it is not expressly linked to the free trade agreement. It does recall the obligations arising from ILO membership, but fails to mention that ILO minimum standards are also among the conditions for free trade.

This means that on the Swiss market, local products could be discriminated against vis-a-vis those from China. Child labour – officially prohibited but still very widespread – and other violations of labour standards are exposing Swiss jobs to utterly unfair competition.

Ratification by Parliament

The National Council has ratified the free trade agreement as did the Council of States as well on 20 March 2014, without demanding the slightest improvement in respect of human and labour rights. The Council of States also opposed the possibility of submitting this economic agreement to an optional referendum. That was a dubious decision given the importance of the agreement.

Regrettable precedent

Switzerland is the first European country to have concluded a free trade agreement with China. The absence of any binding provisions on human and labour rights has set an unfortunate precedent. For even the USA, EU and more recently EFTA have been including such provisions in their agreements as a result of pressure from civil society. In negotiations with other countries, China could invoke these lacunae in the agreement with Switzerland.
Alliance Sud for its part will continue not only to advocate for human and labour rights in future free trade agreements, but also to insist that labour law provisions included in the side agreement with China are effectively monitored and complied with.

Political field