(New York) -- Human Rights Watch today commended the Chinese government for ratifying a key United Nations human rights treaty, but said China must do more to protect the rights of workers. As China prepares to join the World Trade Organization and to dismantle more state-run enterprises, Human Rights Watch said, a growing unemployment rate will require stronger protections for workers.

The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on February 28, but the official Xinhua News Agency said China's obligations under Article 8 (1) (a), which covers the right to form and join trade unions, would be "in line with relevant provisions of China's Constitution, Trade Union Law and Labour Law." China's precise commitments won't be clear until it deposits its ratification with the U.N. in New York.

"China must change its domestic laws to protect workers' right of free association - that's absolutely basic," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division. "By ratifying this covenant, Beijing is agreeing to respect international standards, and workers' rights are a key part of those standards."

The dismantling of state-run enterprises has already created over 20 million unemployed, and once China joins the WTO, pressures will increase on dislocated workers who risk losing medical, educational, housing and other work-related benefits, Jendrzejczyk said.

China's laws recognize only one government-sponsored workers' organization, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which exerts leadership over some 590,000 official grassroots unions and their sub-branches. All attempts to organize independent unions have been systematically crushed by the authorities.

Human Rights Watch urged China to immediately begin efforts to reform its labor laws. To help with this process, the Chinese government should accept a request from the International Labor Organization in Geneva last June to send a direct contact mission to China to assist with the full implementation of the right of free association. As a member of the ILO, China is obligated to respect the rights of workers to establish organizations of their own choosing. But the ILO has found that several provisions of China's Trade Union Law contradict this core ILO principle. It urged changes in the law, as well as the release of detained union organizers and the abolition of the system of re-education through labor. The ruling was issued by the ILO's Committee on Freedom of Association acting on a complaint filed in June 1999 by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in Brussels.

"If it is really committed to respecting this treaty, the Chinese government should release all those imprisoned for trying to organize workers," said Jendrzejczyk.

Independent labor organizers often face long prison terms. Zhang Shanguang, who tried to organize a free labor union in Hunan province, was sentenced to ten years in prison in 1998, on charges of endangering state security. More recently, Cao Maobing, who attempted to form an independent union at a state-owned silk factory in Jiangsu province, was detained and is now being kept in a mental hospital. He Zhaohui was given a 10-year sentence in Chenzhou, Hunan province, in August 1999, for "endangering state safety" after he organized workers' demonstrations and reported workers' protests to groups overseas.

Those who assist workers in defending their rights have also been targeted. Xu Jian, a registered legal practitioner in Baotou City in Inner Mongolia, helped workers from a state-owned machinery and steel company and distributed leaflets telling laid-off workers about their rights under China's labor laws. He was detained in December 1999, and charged with incitement to overthrow the state, and last July was sentenced to four years imprisonment. Xu Jian had previously worked at the Neimenggu No. 2 Main Machinery Factory in Baotou City.

Human Rights Watch also urged China to promptly ratify, without major reservations, another key U.N. treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it signed in October 1998. The treaty has not yet been submitted to the National People's Congress Standing Committee for ratification.