August 11, 2008

Iannuzzi: Behind the Games is Olympic-sized shame

The following commentary by NYSUT President Richard C. Iannuzzi appeared in the Binghamton Press and Sun Bulletin August 11, 2008.

China's dark side

Behind the Games is Olympic-sized shame

By Richard C. Iannuzzi

iannuzziThe eyes of the world are on China. The Summer Olympics -- with a motto of "One World, One Dream" -- are under way in Beijing.

For three weeks, America will root for its athletes. Even those who don't follow sports will watch with pride, beaming as the Stars and Stripes waves proudly in Beijing's night sky for U.S. champions who win gold, silver or bronze medals.

Yet, as we cheer for the athletes and the courage they display in both victory and defeat -- and take in the natural beauty of China -- Americans must hold all applause for China's government and its leaders. China's sad history of exploitation of workers and its legacy of human rights abuses should make all of us shudder.

The Chinese government brought an estimated 1 million migrant construction workers from rural provinces to its cities to build the magnificent new sports facilities, including Beijing's spectacular Olympic stadium. The migrant workers were separated from their families, denied proper wages and required to labor under dangerous conditions.

Human Rights Watch has documented the Chinese government's failure to fulfill its promises to protect the rights of migrant construction workers. In a recent report, it carefully detailed how employers routinely held on to workers' wages and, in some cases, refused to pay wages at all.

One worker reported working every single day for months because he did not have money to leave the job site. Another testified he earned the equivalent of $1.50 a day after his employer subtracted exorbitant and unjustified living costs from his daily wages.

China's treatment of workers is abysmal, and its record in dealing with those who protest the Chinese government's deplorable conduct violates every standard of human rights and dignity.

Last year, for example, outside groups -- working secretly to avoid detection and arrest -- discovered a massive network of illegal brick kilns staffed by kidnapped slave labor. The existence of these kilns is an example of the persistent inhumane labor conditions in China.

China only offers the weakest protections for workers and does not grant workers the right to organize independent labor unions.

It is why, in addition to the deserved adulation for Olympic athletes, Americans should also acknowledge the heroic courage of labor activist Yao Fuxin, who led tens of thousands of factory workers in a peaceful demonstration against corruption and demanded payment of their back wages. Fuxin, detained and charged with disturbing the social order, has been languishing in prison without a fair trial for more than six years.

The International Olympic Committee is well aware of China's abuse of workers and its history of silencing those who fight for workers' rights. To its shame, the IOC has merely urged patience and asked critics to give China time to change.

The Olympics are upon us and, of course, China has not changed. It has turned its back on the Olympic ideals of peace, harmony and respect and made a mockery of its own Olympic motto.

To China's government, "One World, One Dream" is just a veil to mask the workers' lives it has destroyed to stage these Olympics.

In the massive construction boom that made the upcoming Summer Games possible, China's government pulverized the hopes of migrant construction workers for a better life like the stone used to build the new venues. China turned its workers' desire for fair pay and health benefits into ash like the kilns that made the bricks, and twisted migrants' dreams for a voice in their destiny into a nightmare. There should be no Olympic cheers, only shame, for a repressive government that does not respect its own people and the labor rights enjoyed in most industrialized nations throughout the world.

Iannuzzi, an elementary school teacher for 34 years, is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.


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