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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)


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Mr. Zhang came first to Dongguan, known for its notoriously tough Taiwanese factory owners, and found work in a shoe plant that routinely flouted laws on wage, overtime and safety. Soon after starting, he watched security guards beat a worker to death. And one day employees who’d missed a fire drill were lined up and sprayed with a fire hose for hours.

Concluding that “workers were nothing more than machines for the bosses to make money,” he organized a union affiliated with the ACFTU but says the factory’s owner tried to sabotage his efforts. One night in the cafeteria, he recalls, “some pamphlets were distributed warning that, if wages weren’t paid on time, the factory would be torched.” They appeared to have been signed by a union leader, he says, and the owner told the authorities: “Get rid of these people or I’ll go.”

To keep the factory from closing, the authorities sided with management, so Mr. Zhang returned to Hunan in 1998 and spent three years growing oranges. But he couldn’t earn a living, and in 2002 headed back to the delta, this time finding work in Shenzhen.

Then came the event that changed his life. That December, he says, “I had a traffic accident, and the factory didn’t pay for my medical expenses. It was work-related accident because I was on my way to a delivery. I sued the factory but I lost the case.”

He realized that he hadn’t stood a chance. “If you have enough money, you can pay a lawyer to protect your rights. And if you know the law, you can still protect yourself. But I was different: I knew nothing about law and I had no money.”

Determined to do something, he went back into the union business, forming one that was open to workers at all factories in the area. By March, 2004, he’d rented an office and was providing legal advice pro bono. “We had over 300 workers. Based on the membership fee, we sustained our operations.”

But this time there was no affiliation with the ACFTU, so two years later, the authorities shut them down.


Chinese society is deeply stratified. The most recent census of Guangdong shows that one-third of the province’s 104 million residents are migrants. In fact, just 2.7 million of the 15 million who live in Shenzhen have “hukou,” the local registration they need for access to education, social insurance and health care.

Those without official residency are said to be “floating” – and, outwardly, the authorities pay tribute to them. For example, the World University Games held last summer in Shenzhen opened with a troop of break-dancers sporting construction helmets and wielding fake bricks. “Migrant workers have made a great contribution to Shenzhen’s development over the past 30 years,” the China Daily gushed. “If the city is a giant machine, they are the gears that keep it running.”

Yet without hukou, migrants are essentially second-class citizens. Right before the games, about 80,000 of them were rounded up and evicted from the city for being, as officials told the China Daily, “ex-cons, suspected drug users and those reported to take part in ‘abnormal’ activities and have suspicious incomes.” In reality, they were unemployed and unregistered.

Friction between the haves and have-nots is on the rise. Last June, dissatisfaction bubbled over in two Guangdong cities. When security agents in a Guangzhou suburb beat a pregnant vendor and her husband, migrants set cars on fire and damaged government buildings. Police deployed tear gas; 25 people were injured.

Then in neighbouring Chaozhou, when 18-year-old Xiong Hanjiang demanded back wages from the ceramics factory where he worked, he was reportedly beaten with a wooden stool by company guards, who then slashed his wrists and ankles – all in front of his parents, who’d come along for moral support. Those responsible for the attack, including the factory owner, were arrested, but migrants and locals clashed for days, injuring bystanders and causing significant property damage.

Asked what the riots meant for China’s labour movement, Mr. Zhang dismisses the question, saying: “There is no labour movement in China.” Then he laughs and explains what he really means. “It’s just the public demand for basic rights.”


To serve that public demand for basic rights, Mr. Zhang’s office is located in the heart of a typically dowdy migrant neighbourhood, between a little grocery store and a salon that specializes in the poufy punk-rock haircuts the workers seem to love. It’s hard to believe the massive and modern Foxconn complex that produces Apple’s signature iPods and iPads is just minutes away.

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