China is still a developing country. Her working environment needs much improvement. She is also working toward Rule of Law. Recently, the people who sued various government agencies achieved a 40% success rate in verdicts.
Lawyer takes on Shenzhen factories
The Washington Post
Fei Mingli, a slight teenager from Sichuan province, came to Shenzhen in 1998 to seek her fortune in a textile factory, cranking out jeans and tank tops for the West. Sometime after midnight on 22 July, she went out for a walk. Dogs patrolling the factory attacked the 17-year-old, breaking her right leg and ripping chunks from her nose, head and elbows. Ms Fei had violated a rule that ordered all workers locked in dormitories by midnight. She was hospitalised for 62 days. When her father sought compensation, she was fired and paid only medical expenses. Her case could have sunk into the oblivion of hundreds of thousands of others like hers in China. They beat a path to a man famous for standing up for workers in a country with one of the world's worst occupational safety records.
Lawyer Zhou Litai took the case and, late last year, after proving the factory had no dog permit and there had been six similar attacks since 1994, he won a US$6,000 (HK$46,800) settlement in a country where millions barely clear US$1,000 a year.
"Lawyer Zhou is a good man," Ms Fei's father Fei Zhongming said. "Without him, we would have had nothing. He won justice for us."
In its rush to be a modern industrialised nation in the 20 years since reforms opened doors to the West, the country that once advertised itself as a socialist workers' paradise has victimised average labourers with its cut-throat system. With the World Trade Organisation prospect, the United States and other nations have pushed for some type of binding international labour standards, an issue behind protests at the WTO Seattle meeting in November. In the first nine months of last year, 3,464 miners died on the mainland - about the same as 1998 - one of the worst rates per ton of minerals mined in the world. The only place where official statistics for industrial accidents have been released is Shenzhen, a city with 9,582 factories. In 1998, 12,189 workers were seriously injured and 80 died in such accidents there, although the real number is believed to be much higher.
More than 90 per cent of those injured lost a limb. Statistics from the state hospital in Shenzhen's Bao'an county tell a gruesome tale: 42 patients in its building five have lost legs; 21 patients have third-degree burns in building six; 47 patients in building 7 have lost hands.
After a ferry sank in November, killing 280 people, the Communist Party called for a nationwide workplace safety inspection campaign and acknowledged serious health and safety hazards remain. "Since 1980, labour standards in China have got worse," said Anita Chan, a senior research fellow of the Australian Research Council and an expert on China's labour issues. "In the state sector, workers are losing their jobs, so labour standards are almost as bad as foreign-funded or private-sector factories in inland provinces. As for foreign-funded factories, exploitation and abuses have not diminished in the 1990s. If anything, because of the Asian economic crisis, it has got worse."
Workers' attempts to seek government help usually fail. Beijing allows only the All-China Federation of Trade Unions to exist. It is generally seen as a party mouthpiece, although in recent years it has fought quietly against some clearly anti-labour laws and policies.
Mr Zhou, born 42 years ago in Sichuan, was yanked out of school by his parents in third grade and put to work on the land. When he was 17, his father sent him to the Tibetan plateau as a soldier. He served for five years in some of the harshest conditions on Earth.
He returned to Sichuan in 1979, but his family was too poor to feed him. Mr Zhou found work in a brick factory in a neighbouring province. A friend encouraged him to learn a skill. He took to law, perhaps, he said, because he was infuriated by the exploitation around him. In 1986, he set up shop in his home town, Kaixian, north of Chongqing, in Sichuan. Ten years later, he took a case that would catapult him into national prominence -and land him in serious debt. A husband and wife, both workers at Shenzhen's Happy Toy Factory, were killed by a delivery truck on factory grounds. The factory denied responsibility, leaving their three young children and aging parents penniless.
They came to Mr Zhou as a last resort. He sued the factory and won US$40,000 - the first time a mainland court ordered a factory to pay damages to the family of deceased workers. His experience in Shenzhen - meeting maimed workers with tales of exploitation, 18-hour shifts, dormitory lock-downs, dog attacks and decrepit machinery - convinced him his life's work lay not in Sichuan, but with the Sichuanese in Shenzhen. "If you don't protect your workers, it doesn't matter how good your products are,'' he said. "You are creating a social volcano."
He has since filed 200 other lawsuits in Shenzhen. He has won 30; most of the others are still pending. He sometimes works on contingency and also receives donations. Along the way, he has angered the city government, which tried to disbar him in 1997 but lost in court.
In late 1997, he found a house in a rough-and-tumble neighbourhood outside Shenzhen. Since then, 70 injured workers, penniless and unemployed, have lived with him, an enterprise that has thrown him in debt. Some skipped town after winning their cases without paying him for room and board.
Most of Mr Zhou's adversaries are factories run by Taiwanese, Hong Kong or South Korean companies, which do contract work for Western firms.