As General Motors and other top car makers prepare to invest billions of dollars in China, international labour leaders reportedly paint a bleak picture for the prospect of union representation for car workers there and labour officials say that’s likely to mean low wages and poor working conditions, according to an Associated Press (AP) report.

“The Chinese government is engaged in a systematic campaign to repress legitimate trade union activity in order to suppress wages and attract foreign capital,” Ron Gettelfinger, president of the United Auto Workers union, reportedly said on Tuesday in remarks to the International Metalworkers’ Federation World Auto Council.

AP said roughly 200 union officials representing automotive industry workers in 25 countries are meeting until Thursday in Detroit to discuss strategies for dealing with industry changes, such as the outsourcing of jobs in some regions and rapid expansion taking place in Asia.

In particular, the report noted, China’s economy is expected to grow at an annual rate of 9.8% in the first half of this year, and new car sales are strong in a market into which, since 1996, global carmakers have pumped more than $12 billion, according to the IMF, and the spending continues.

GM said on Monday it plans to invest $US3 billion over the next three years in China, which is poised to become the third largest market for car production behind the United States and Japan, AP.

Ford has also announced a planned tripling of output from Chinese joint venture car plants this week, while the Beijing motor show takes place.

Associated Press said that, while business prospects are bright for carmakers, labour leaders say they’re concerned that China’s state-controlled trade unions will continue to resist the introduction of internationally recognised worker rights.

“They’ve even gone so far as to actively support denial of these rights,” IMF President Jurgen Peters reportedly told the gathering, though he said “there are now some initial signs of a cautious thaw.”

According to AP, in March, organised labour asked the Bush administration in the United States to impose economic sanctions on China, contending the country had violated workers’ rights to gain trade advantages against the US.

The request represented the latest effort by American unions to highlight what they see as unfair trade practices that have led to a record $US124 billion US trade deficit with China last year and the loss of thousands of US factory jobs, AP added.

The petition, filed by the US-based AFL-CIO, alleged that China was brutally repressing worker rights, constituting an unfair labour practice as defined in Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, the report said.

AP said the Bush administration decided against pursuing the complaint and said it would continue to work with China through diplomatic channels to improve trade relations.

Gettelfinger reportedly criticised Bush for rejecting the petition, saying the president “has little interest in raising the living standards of Chinese workers.”

According to AP, the UAW boss noted, however, that the AFL-CIO had accepted an invitation from the Chinese government to visit the country and inspect working conditions.

Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who specialises in labour issues, told Associated Press he doesn’t expect any quick changes to China’s labour environment, but foreign carmakers and organisations such as the AFL-CIO and UAW should apply pressure.

“China needs access to other markets to sustain its export trajectory,” Shaiken reportedly said, adding: “These unions and their respective governments have considerable leverage to open up China. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s possible. The alternative is that China becomes, in effect, a black hole when it comes to wages and benefits globally. That doesn’t do anyone any good.”

GM spokesman Pat Morrissey told AP he wasn’t able to comment on government affairs, but that GM’s operations in China provide the same type of safety training and worker protections as in other parts of the world – GM also has said its joint-venture workers in China make significantly more than the average state worker.

“The manufacturing system we have in place in China is as close to identical as we can make it to what we’re doing elsewhere around the world,” Morrissey told Associated Press.