Lawyer takes on China's factories
Paul Wiseman / USA TODAY 18jun01
SHENZHEN, China — They come here by the thousands: young people from hardscrabble farms deep inside China in search of factory jobs in this gaudy boomtown across the border from Hong Kong.
For $50 a month, they labor as cogs in the great Chinese export machine. They crank out Christmas decorations, sneakers, toys, auto parts, computer accessories and countless other products for world markets insatiable for low-cost Chinese goods. But sometimes the machine spits them out: 30 workers in Shenzhen are injured every day. Many of the injured lose a hand or a limb.
For years, there was no one to help them. The factories paid the maimed a pittance and sent them out into the streets. New arrivals from the countryside, eager for work, took their places.
But migrant workers finally have someone to turn to: A lawyer named Zhou Litai (joe LEE-tie) is hauling factory owners and bureaucrats into court and demanding compensation for injured workers. And he's winning.
"If there were no Mr. Zhou, I would have had no choice but to go home or live here like a beggar," says Fu Xulin, 21, a migrant worker from poverty-stricken Anhui Province in eastern China. Fu lost his hand in an industrial accident in 1998 and won $19,300 compensation in court for his injuries. He now studies law and works for Zhou.
Zhou's success suggests that after years of halting legal reforms, China's corrupt, inefficient and politicized court system can work, at least sometimes, for the most powerless citizens. Chinese law, often ignored, says injured workers deserve compensation. Before Zhou, there was no one to help workers take advantage of their legal rights. "Zhou has created an important starting point," says Han Dongfang, a dissident labor activist who lives in exile in Hong Kong.
Since he started representing migrant workers five years ago, Zhou — believed to be the only lawyer representing injured workers on the mainland — has won more than 60 cases. Like many personal-injury lawyers in the USA, he has a rugged flair. Zhou once led TV crews and police on a dramatic rescue of his client Fu Xulin, who had been detained by his boss in a factory dormitory to prevent him from going to court.
Zhou even provides free housing for 30 clients who might otherwise be out begging on the streets of Shenzhen. Impressed with his work, groups have donated money to his cause. They include the Reebok Human Rights Foundation ($10,000) and Oxfam ($12,100).
Brutal work schedules
Zhou, 44, and his staff of four are busy. China has one of the worst worker-safety records in the world. The Chinese government itself has estimated that 40 workers die nationwide every day in workplace accidents. Mining accidents alone are believed to kill 10,000 a year. The International Labor Organization has estimated annual deaths from workplace accidents at 11.1 per 100,000 Chinese workers. That compares with the U.S. on-the-job fatality rate of 2.19 per 100,000.
One pitiful place in coastal Zhejiang Province is known as "missing finger village" because so many of its residents have lost digits working for local industries. The injuries and deaths are a consequence of more than two decades of economic development virtually unchecked by any official concern for the environment or the welfare of workers.
The problem is especially serious in Shenzhen, which has grown from a farming backwater into an industrial metropolis in the two decades since it was named a "special economic zone." Zhou says there are 10,000 industrial injuries a year just in the city's Longgang district, where he lives and works.
Migrants flock here for factory jobs, often for less than $50 a month. They work 10 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. The USA directly accounts for 26% of the exports produced in Guangdong Province, which includes Shenzhen. The real share is probably far higher because much of the 34% exported to Hong Kong eventually goes on to the USA. Many factories are outfitted with secondhand equipment, jury-rigged to survive brutal production schedules. Workers are trained spottily, if at all.
Fu Xulin's training consisted of watching other workers operate a plastic molding machine for 10 minutes before he took over himself. Fu, 21, lost a hand when the machine collapsed while his arm was inside. He was making plastic Santa Claus decorations at the time.
Zhou views with disdain factory owners who refuse to invest in training or equipment or to pay up when one of their workers suffers an injury. "They can afford it, no problem," he says. "They just want to earn an extra dollar. They are like animals."
Factories run by U.S., European and Japanese companies tend to follow strict safety rules, Zhou says. The worst safety offenders usually are Taiwanese and Hong Kong entrepreneurs, he says.
Factory owners sometimes make brutal decisions. Lu Chun Mei, 33, a migrant from Fujian Province, was working the 9 p.m.-to-7:30 a.m. shift at a factory in Shenzhen two years ago when a bad batch of plastic melted prematurely as she fed it into a molding machine. Scalding plastic seared her arm. She was rushed to the hospital, where she waited eight hours for the factory owner to come and decide what to do. Burn treatments would have cost 70,000 to 80,000 Chinese yuan ($8,500 to $9,700), more than three times the cost of cutting off her hand. The boss ordered the amputation. The doctors carried it out. For her suffering, the boss offered her $2,415. Lu took her case to Zhou, who won her $12,100 in court. She has collected only $9,000 so far.
Caring for clients
Lu is now one of about 30 injured workers living in a four-story apartment building in the Longgang district that Zhou rents and lives in himself. She spends her time watching soap operas on television and knitting sweaters for herself one-handed. Other clients — mostly young men — sit in the TV room or play cards on their bunk beds, maneuver Gameboy toys, play pingpong, study or use Zhou's office computer. They live four to a room and eat in one mess hall. Zhou's sister and her husband cook their meals.
Zhou is supposed to receive 10% of each client's court awards. But he says about 30 of his successful clients — nearly half — have run off without paying him. Sometimes the government-run Shenzhen social insurance bureau, which is supposed to compensate injured workers with fees paid by factories, mails compensation checks to the workers' hometowns in what Zhou says is a deliberate attempt to make it harder for him to collect his commission. Zhou is little loved at the underfunded social insurance bureau, where he is seen as a money-hungry ambulance chaser. "Mr. Zhou helps the workers in court only because there is money to be made," says one bureau official who identifies himself as Mr. Zhao.
But Zhou says he is barely surviving financially. Running the building costs $36,000 a year in rent, food and water. He has run up several thousand dollars in debts. "I'd like to be an American lawyer," he sighs. "I make no money."
Zhou certainly doesn't resemble a high-priced U.S. lawyer. He pads around the apartment building in a blue sweatshirt and purple slippers.
He came to the law in a roundabout way. Born into a poor family in southwestern China, he toiled at a brick factory, where he learned firsthand the brutality of Chinese workplaces.
Zhou began studying law and earned his license in 1986. His life changed after he represented the family of a couple killed while walking to work at a toy factory. The plant was ordered to pay the victims' relatives nearly $40,000 — an unusual decision because the award was large and the factory was held responsible, even though the accident happened as the victims were on their way to work. Zhou decided to devote his practice to worker injuries. He moved to Shenzhen because it attracts so many migrant workers.
Despite his financial troubles, he says, "I like this enterprise." How long will he keep at it? "Maybe forever. ... How can I close my eyes?"
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