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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

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.

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."


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.

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.

There has been progress. In 2008, the Labour Contract Law was introduced "to protect the legitimate rights and interests of workers, and to build and develop harmonious and stable employment relationships." But with economic downturn that same year, practical concerns stalled enforcement of the new safety standards and minimum wage.

"We are still operating very much under the old mindset in China, which is, 'Once an accident happens, we will figure out how to [deal with it] as opposed to 'Let's avoid the accident before it happens,' " explains Jeremy Prepscius, former head of Asian sourcing for Nike now with Business for Social Responsibility, a group (members include H&M and IKEA) that promotes corporate ethics and social responsibility.

Mr. Zhang says that changing Chinese manufacturers' practices will take time and happen in three steps: "Step number one is meeting the basic legal minimum wage, every factory doing this. Step number two, workers should get wages above the legal minimum, benefits and improved working condition, etc. And step three is ensuring the voice of labour at is heard when the government is drafting policy."

All this depends on one crucial change, however. "The ACFTU monopoly means that there is no real organizing," he admits. "To get to step two and three, we need to break out of this monopoly."

Mr. Zhang is vague when asked what help he gets toward achieving these goals, but Li Qiang of China Labor Watch, a New York-based agency devoted to worker rights, admits to providing Spring Breeze's "seed money."

"Most of the funding comes from the U.S. State Department ... through a third-party organization," he explains. "In 2006, when I first got the State Department grant, I was able to directly transfer the money to Zhang Zhiru. But as it became more sensitive, I used organizations to move the money around."

Mr. Li, who has helped Spring Breeze develop its worker-training program, says Mr. Zhang is well regarded in the labour-rights community. "He has a really good understanding and awareness of the [human]rights environment, and he has a lot of experience in the field."

What's more, "he thinks about things independently ... He has a critical mind."


But he also has to watch his step. Working conditions have improved over the years – and even the AFCTU has shown signs of change. After Honda workers in nearby Foshan staged a wildcat strike in 2010, the federation sensed the political winds had shifted and eventually helped to negotiate a 30-per-cent pay raise.

As well, the rise of the corporate social responsibility movement has spotlighted working conditions at such places as Foxconn, where the high-pressure environment that churns out laptops and iPads has contributed to 17 suicides in the past five years.

But the possibility of mass unrest has the barefoot lawyers doing all they can to put the government at ease, especially after

it imposed crackdowns last year in response to worker protests sparked by the Arab spring.

Mr. Zhang had forged a coalition with 20 or so other lawyers in the delta and they would meet every month in secret. Now, he says, "the government is especially paranoid about labour rights organizers. If we start working together, we might get unwanted attention ... that would get us shut down."

He speaks from experience, having been monitored, harassed and "called in for tea," by the Public Security Bureau more times than he cares to remember. As well, documents released recently by WikiLeaks include a cable from Guangzhou's U.S. consulate that details how Mr. Zhang was slapped with a 300-per-cent penalty for being late to pay his taxes.

Last fall, he discovered just how far he could go when he decided to run for election to the only ostensibly democratic body in China, the Local People's Congress. First, a supporter was detained while handing out flyers and, the next day, 20 police descended, telling Mr. Zhang to stop campaigning because he was "undermining" the electoral process. A squad car took up position in front of his office, and police began to follow wherever he went.

Meanwhile, election officials announced new regulations: Suddenly, anyone without Shenzhen hukou was no longer eligible to vote.

Mr. Zhang got the point – and pulled out of the race.

Adam Matthews is a Toronto-raised, New York based freelance journalist. He researched this story with the help of a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and reported it with help from Shenzhen-based journalist Michael Standaert.

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