A behind-the-scenes battle is raging worldwide over reforms in China’s labor law, according to an article posted last month on CommonDreams.org. The fight indicates the political barriers blocking development of the vast potential market for personal protective gear and other safety products in China.

On one side are Wal-Mart, Google, General Electric and other global corporations who have been aggressively lobbying to limit new rights for Chinese workers, according to the report. On the other side are pro-worker rights forces in China, backed by labor, human rights, and political forces in the U.S. and around the world.

In March 2006 the Chinese government, with considerable popular backing, proposed a new labor law with limited but significant increases in workers’ rights. One provision holds that workplace rules, including health and safety, should be negotiated with a union or “employee representatives.”

But the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai (AmCham), the United States-China Business Council, and U.S.-based global corporations lobbied to gut the proposed law. They have even threatened to leave China for countries like Pakistan and Thailand if the law is passed.

Since the re-establishment of capitalism in China 25 years ago, the government has slowly promulgated a series of laws to protect — on paper — the rights of workers in its exploding economy, according to Garrett Brown, a Chinese workplace safety expert.

These laws, enacted in a ten-year period starting in 1994, include the Labor Law, the Trade Union Law, the Occupational Diseases Act, and the Safe Production Act. The new Labor Contract Law now being contested is designed to establish a minimum set of regulations between individual workers — including the 200 million vulnerable and exploited migrant workers — and the country’s domestic and foreign employers, according to Brown.

But global corporations move to China to lower labor costs — and they use those lower labor costs as a lever to drive down wages and working conditions for workers in other countries, and even within China itself, according to the CommonDreams.org post.

So labor organizations around the world have become involved in the fight because low wages and poor working conditions in China drive down those in the rest of the world in a “race to the bottom,” according to the post.

According to Brown, Chinese workers committed to safe and healthful workplaces are the strongest proponents of the use of PPE and other safeguards.