'Even though I'm only primary school educated, my knowledge of filing
labor disputes is better than some professional lawyers. There are
too many people asking me to help them file their lawsuits, that I
can't handle them all'. These are the words of Zhu Xingyin, a farmer
from Sichuan province's Dazhu County. He currently has over 600
lawsuits filed on behalf of migrant workers to help them recover
salary, get financial compensation, and receive workplace injury
subsidies. In total, the lawsuits seek to recover 1 million RMB, and
every year he will secure no less than 200,000 RMB. Zhu Xingyin is
part of a breed of professionals called "citizens' agents" who have
appeared in China in recent years specializing in helping migrant
workers defend their rights. They were originally migrant workers
themselves, who in the process of protecting their own rights and
helping friends and relatives gained a lot of legal knowledge and
skills. By charging only small fees and effectively protecting the
rights of many migrant workers, they have acquired a good reputation
and have gained people's trust. Normally they engage in what we call
"risky agency business". They charge low fees and promise no to ask
for any payment until the lawsuit is won. This has channeled the
spontaneous resistance of migrant workers from outside of the formal
structure in the legal system. To a certain extent they have
alleviated several problems faced by migrant workers, namely: no means
to lodge complaints, high litigation costs, little hope of getting a
court decision, and more generally that migrant workers previously had
nowhere to turn. At the same time, these citizens' agents have
aroused the unease of various government bureaus who are concerned
about how to develop the positive side of these agents' role, and want
to pre-empt their negative impact. To the authorities this is a
management problem that is still in search of a solution.
From protecting one's own right to professional rights protection
Associate chief justice of Shenzhen's Bao'an District Court Feng Jian
believes that with a few exceptions few of them have legal work
experience. The majority are originally migrant workers. Through
their own personal experiences they have learned a certain amount
about the law and litigation procedures. After helping their friends
to bring lawsuits they realized that it could be possible to make some
money, so they began to act as "citizens' agents" and undertook labor
arbitration or litigation on behalf of workers. After wining a
lawsuit they take a pre-negotiated fee set as a percentage of the
compensation received by the worker. That is why they have been well
received by migrant workers.
Zhang Youhe, a professional rights protector from Sichuan province had
this to say: "I left home to work in 1986. I have been imprisoned at
the brick kilns in Shanxi and I've been beaten by a cruel boss in
Hubei. I've experience all of the wrongs that migrant workers
encounter." In 2000, Zhang Youhe was dismissed without cause from a
position he had held at an enterprise in Shenzhen for many years. He
spent 2,500 RMB on legal fees to hire a lawyer to file a lawsuit. But
the enterprise boss bribed the lawyer and so his case was defeated.
He sought a retrial but did not have enough money for a lawyer. This
time he studied labor law on his own, and ended up winning. After
this he helped two people from his hometown with legal cases, and they
both won. In November of 2005 he started specializing in helping
people file labor dispute lawsuits. Right now he is handling more
than 80 cases of administrative lawsuits, suing administrators for not
performing their duties, or for incompetence. He has yet to lose one
case. Currently, there are no fewer than 500 people in the Pearl
River Delta working professionally as rights protectors, and among
them more than 20 have significant influence in specific legal areas.
According to this reporter's investigation some of these migrant
worker professional rights protectors have registered at labor dispute
counsel centers with the Ministry of Commerce; after getting their
registration they open their doors wide for business. Some others
work under law firms, and start working as "legal assistants." Yet
some others do not go through any of this kind of paperwork and get
businesses through people from their hometowns and through word of
mouth from former customers.
Behind the emergence of the community of "citizens' agents" is the
awakening of the consciousness of migrant workers. The costs in terms
of time and money for engaging in rights protection are often
difficult for migrant workers to bear.
Our investigation has revealed that according to China's "one
arbitration, two trials" system, a worker who was trying to recover
1,000 RMB in salary would have to pay at least 920 RMB in expenses to
complete all the procedures. They have to spend 11 to 21 days which
is equal to 550 to 1,050 RMB in lost wages, and this does not include
living, food, and transportation costs for the worker. Workplace
injury cases are even more difficult, as there are up to 19 procedural
steps which can take three and a half years to complete.
The high cost of legal rights protection has caused some aggrieved
migrant workers to give up their legal rights to appeal and go to seek
Welcomed by migrant workers, but headaches for the bosses
Our investigation has revealed that these professional rights
protectors will take 50 to 1,000 RMB up front in order to cover the
costs of transportation, materials, and other costs. After winning a
case, they will charge an amount that had been agreed upon, but
usually it will not be more than 6% of the total settlement. If they
lose the case all the fees are returned. Because this approach
doesn't require migrant workers to shoulder any risk, business has
Because their salary depends on the number of cases they take up as
well as their rate of success, these professional rights protectors
often take the initiative and will go wherever there are labor
disputes. They will then help migrant workers to think through the
problem, come up with new ideas, and provide them with legal counsel.
Some will print out appeal forms and distribute them to workers along
with information on what sorts of behavior constitutes a violation of
their rights and what sort of legal compensation they might expect.
For example, some "citizen's agents" will put information on the back
of their business cards: if you encounter the following situations,
Is it possible to get back two years of unpaid overtime salary and
economic compensation through the Labor Inspectorate without paying
After working for ten years, what sorts of special labor protections are there?
With the emergence of professional rights protectors, migrant workers'
rights awareness has risen. Increased initiative in pursuing the
protection of their rights has caused a huge number of previously
hidden labor disputes come to the surface. Enterprises could not
handle so many complaints from workers. The problem of excessive
overtime is widespread in Shenzhen's enterprises, and many
professional rights protectors specifically look for evidence and
report them to the labor bureau. In April of 2005 an electronics
factory in Shenzhen forced more than 500 employees to work excessive
overtime, which a professional rights protector then reported to the
labor bureau. The labor bureau originally fined the enterprise
100,000 RMB, but after the problem was rectified the fine was reduced
to 20,000 RMB.
Yang Zhiyi, chief of Shezhen's Bao'an District Labor Bureau Labor
Inspection Team commented that last year they processed an average of
8 appeals every day. The professional rights protector community has
caused an obvious increase in the number of complaints workers are
filing against their employers for illegal activity. The labor
bureau's ability to punish enterprises has also been strengthened.
This has gradually increased the cost of violation the laws for
enterprises and forced them to operate legally.
Mixing the good and bad: social disputes on the rise
In the course of the investigation, this reporter discovered that
although the professional rights protector community has helped
migrant workers with some difficult rights protection issues, because
the community has grown so quickly is composed of both virtuous and
unscrupulous individuals. Because right protection methods can be
either good or bad, this has led to suspicion on the part of some
Xu Jin, vice-director of Shenzhen's Bao'an District Labor Bureau
commented that professional rights protectors have not received formal
legal training and that they have not received much education.
Because of this and the fact that most of their outfits are "mom and
pop stores" or "brotherhood stores" with complicated backgrounds they
have a very high turnover rate. In order to earn more money, certain
professional rights protectors will encourage workers to lodge
collective appeals, block the roads, and tie up the courts, and this
has a serious negative impact on the investment environment.
Feng Jian said that these "citizens' agents" have raised the
expectations of migrant workers, which has occasionally led to
increased difficulty for the courts in resolving cases. This causes
labor disputes to drag on, escalate and worsen. Feng Jian said that
although these rights protectors had reduced the cost of rights
protection for migrant workers, they have increased social and
But some "citizens' agents" believe that they have provided the 17
million migrant workers in the Pearl River Delta with quick,
inexpensive, and convenient legal services. This has caused the
workers to use the law, rather than to strike, block roads, or other
radical means, and this has contributed to social stability.
Qin Haixia, Zhang Youhe, Zhang Xuewu and other member of the
professional rights protector community think that their activities
have raise the number of arbitration and lawsuits to a new height and
this has changed the long-standing passivity of labor inspectors. The
inspectors have been forced to continue to learn and to increase their
administrative capabilities. At the same time, they have ratcheted up
social pressure on law-breaking enterprises. The reduction in law
violations within Shenzhen's enterprises and increased improvements
for workers cannot be separated from the actions of the professional
rights protection community. These "citizens' agents" are very
dissatisfied with measures the government and courts have taken to
restrict their activity, and believe that this only serves to protect
enterprises' illegal employment activities.
The "standing army" is no where to be seen, while the "guerillas" have
new tricks up their sleeves.
Labor bureaus and local courts in the Pearl River Delta with it good
legal environment and advanced legal consciousness have provided the
"citizens' agents" with space to exist. Additionally the gap between
migrant workers' actual need and what the specialized legal services
institutions can provide has given them the soil to grow.
Xu Jin noted that in Bao'an District there are 300,000 permanent
residents, more than 5 million migrant workers, 60,000 enterprises of
various size, but only 400 professional lawyers. The inadequacies of
the "standing army" have inevitably produced a "guerilla".
In the course of investigation, this reporter discovered that
professional lawyers are often unwilling to accept labor dispute cases
because they require a large investment of time and remuneration is
low. In addition, their high fees are too high for migrant workers.
The primary forces of labor dispute litigation in the Pearl River
Delta have already been replaced by the "citizens' agents". Last year
the Shenzhen Lawyers' Association submitted a proposal to the legal
affairs office in which they expressed hope that they could rid
themselves of the labor dispute cases which take up so much time and
produce such little benefit.
Zhang Youhe, Qi Yunhui and other "citizens' agents" said that because
of absence of economic incentive, professional lawyers are not very
knowledgeable of labor laws. The higher the prestige of a lawyer, the
less likely the lawyer is willing to take up labor dispute cases and
willing to litigate on behalf of migrant workers.
Comparatively speaking, these "citizens' agents" rights protection
skills are somewhat better, and by practicing they have discovered a
series of new rights protection methods. These include "labor
inspection" and "administrative litigation" as part of the practice of
rights protection. Shenzhen's Bao'an District Labor Bureau and local
courts both admit that "citizens' agents" have discovered a number of
legal and effective tricks in rights protection processes that they
themselves had never thought of.
The sincerity of bureaucracies' "People First" policy put to the test
In the course of investigation, this reporter discovered that this
professional group is a social force that has a deep mass base and
space to exist in the Pearl River Delta. At present, its development
is coming to a crossroads; relevant government agencies should
actively face up to this reality and allow it to become a beneficial
supplementary institutional mechanism to the system for protecting the
rights and interests of migrant workers.
Currently, the Guangdong labor bureau is formulating a plan in how to
tighten management of this "citizens' agents" community. The most
significant feature of the plan is to severely limit their activities.
On March 15th of this year (2007), Shenzhen's Bao'an District
Peoples' Court established new regulations which place various
restrictions on the ability of citizen's agents to participate in
lawsuit proceedings. Additionally, it requires that "citizens'
agents" and their clients must appear in court to sign a statement
saying that all legal work will be pro bono. After this, no Bao'an
District Courts will allow people with the identity of "citizens'
agent" to participate in litigation. Shenzhen's legal and commerce
departments have also been united in "cleaning up" labor disputed
legal consultation services. Although this has reduced the huge
volume of labor administration cases, the inability of other legal
services to meet the demand has increased the difficulty of rights
protection for migrant workers.
The actions of the government and courts have aroused a strong
reaction from the rights protector community. They have repeatedly
gone to appeal to relevant government agencies, and have sought
support from various places. Because the leading members of the
"citizens' agents" community all have websites, some foreign
organizations have initiated setting up contacts and providing them
with financial support. These organizations have taken the lawsuits
out of context and used them to attack China's labor system, which has
created a negative influence in the international community.
Xu Jin said, "If the legal services of the government are inadequate,
and migrant workers' legal rights protection needs are not being met,
it is very difficult to ban this rights protection community. The
most important matter is to begin to manage and control this group, we
cannot continue to let things slide."
The vice-chair of the Guandong Federation of Trade Unions believes
that the "citizens' agents" should not be seen in the same light as
"black lawyers" or "barefoot lawyers" They are in integral part of
the resources available to migrant workers, and to keep on suppressing
them is not a good approach. Forcing the "citizen's agents" into
becoming oppositional is not as good as "co-opting" them into the
union and other government agencies. They should be organized so that
they can participate and assist the government or professional lawyers
in their work to protect the rights of migrant workers. Their
remuneration can be based on the outcome of their rights protection
work, and in this way their active participation can be more
effectively brought into play.
(*) This article we received from the International Trade Union
Confederation is from a Flemish publication dated 30.10.2007 that we
have not been able to identify