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Zhang Zhiru runs Spring Labor Dispute Organization in China, which offers legal advice, a free library and a computer lab to migrant workers. (Jocelyn Baun/Jocelyn Baun)
Zhang Zhiru runs Spring Labor Dispute Organization in China, which offers legal advice, a free library and a computer lab to migrant workers. (Jocelyn Baun/Jocelyn Baun)

CHINA

Following Tiananmen's tentative torchbearers Add to ...

A little late from dinner, Zhang Zhiru arrives at his office to find two clients waiting, paperwork in hand, so he quickly gets down to business.

The first man claims to have been dismissed without reason by an electronics factory. Mr. Zhang examines his document and realizes he has no case – not because the firing was justified but because the factory’s registration is bogus. It’s one of the many illegal workshops in the area, and you can’t sue something that doesn’t officially exist.

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The second man has the middle and ring fingers of one hand bandaged and says he lost most of both digits while cleaning a machine. “My employer didn’t give me any compensation,” he says. “By law, they should have.”

Surveying the grisly injury, Mr. Zhang asks a few questions and soon determines that the man is quite right – a settlement is in order. The final sum, he says later over dinner, will be about 40,000 yuan, or just over $3,000 a finger. It’s an educated guess, but the man making it – despite the image he projects, with his slim build, grey suit and cropped hair, didn’t get past primary school and describes himself as semi-literate.

Zhang Zhiru is a leading member of the “barefoot lawyers,” China’s corps of self-taught, unlicensed “citizen representatives” who first appeared decades ago as self-taught rural paralegals helping villagers with no access to real lawyers. More recently, they have appeared in the major industrial centres, which are teeming with workers who have migrated from regions across the nation and often are treated as second-class citizens.

People like Mr. Zhang shouldn’t be necessary. On paper, China has stringent labour laws and still venerates the man who called on the workers of the world to unite. Here, unlike most countries, May Day, created in 1889 – exactly 100 years before the crackdown in Tiananmen Square – to advance the eight-hour work day championed by Karl Marx – remains a major national holiday.

But those laws are rarely enforced, and organized labour in the People’s Republic amounts to just one official body: the All China Federation of Trade Unions, which represents an estimated 250 million workers but, in a country obsessed with its economic development, traditionally sides with management.

As a result, a barefoot lawyer is the only real hope for many workers when factory bosses deny them back pay or compensation for work-related injuries. And it can be a thankless job. Mr. Zhang charges no fees for his services, supporting his wife and infant daughter by working part-time as a paralegal at a law firm.

And what he does is legal only as long as the authorities say it is. Monday marks the 23rd anniversary of Tiananmen, but even now the state simply will not tolerate anything resembling an overt challenge to its authority – especially agencies like Mr. Zhang’s Spring Breeze which is supported financially by the U.S. State Department.

The yardstick for just how far he can go moves continually, meaning he has to watch his back if he is to stay out of jail. So why, at 37, has he now spent almost half of his life playing this dangerous game?

Because before deciding to stand up for the rights of migrant workers, Mr. Zhang was one himself. As explained by a colleague – a man who lost his right forearm to an industrial accident – he like most barefoot lawyers “knows how it tastes.”

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Born almost 1,000 kilometres inland, Mr. Zhang was 19 when he, like virtually all the men in his village in Hunan province, came seeking employment in the Pearl River Delta, the most prosperous and productive region in China. It was four years after Tiananmen, and factory owners in Taiwan and nearby Hong Kong were moving operations to the Chinese mainland to save on wages. In the process, they drew a steady stream of workers from rural communities.

In all, hundreds of millions fled the hinterland for the coast, a migration considered the largest in human history. The delta’s proximity to Hong Kong and access to ports, shipping lanes and constantly improving infrastructure were transforming the region from an economic backwater to the world’s factory floor.

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