Qiao Yuzhi's parents, wife and 12-year-old son were waiting eagerly for him in Henan Province. He should have been home for Spring Festival. But he couldn't. And it was not the heavy snow that threw life out of gear in large parts of the country that stopped him. He stayed back in Xi'an because he was determined to make his employer pay him his unpaid wages.
"I can't go home at the (Chinese) year-end with empty hands," said Qiao. This was on Februrary 2, five days before the Lunar New Year.
Qiao is 40 years old, but looks older. He has been working on interior furnishing for the past decade in the capital of Shaanxi Province. He came to know about the Legal Aid Station for Migrant Workers from a radio program, and approached it days before Spring Festival to help him get his arrear wages of 1,000 yuan (US$140). After hearing his case, lawyer Zhou Wei agreed to help and guide him.
The Belgium government gave 160,000-yuan (US$224,000) to set up the legal aid cell, which is part of a UN Development Program (UNDP) brokered project to provide free legal aid to migrant workers.
"I worked more than a month decorating the house of my boss and got paid only 200 yuan," Qiao said in frustration. What he is perturbed about is such incidents are common. Many of his co-workers have suffered too. "I don't know why on earth he didn't pay me as he had promised. He lives in a villa and travels in a sedan."
After six attempts to talk to the man, Qiao and Zhou decided to take him to court. "He refused to see us and called us names," Zhou said. "We lawyers tend to settle disputes through intermediation because legal procedures usually take a long time that might be disastrous for a migrant worker who needs money to survive." But unfortunately just five of the 120 cases handled by the legal aid cell have been settled out of court.
The two are waiting for the final verdict in their case, which is likely to be positive according to the court hearings, said Zhou. Zhou's story is one of sacrifice and dedication. He is dedicated to the cause of fighting for migrant workers rights and their dues. He gave up his job as a commercial lawyer that fetched him 30,000 (US$4,200) a year to work for 1,500 yuan (US$210) a month now.
"I feel contented and happy to help," said the 35-year-old lawyer. Compared to their much higher paid lawyers in the corporate field, Zhou and his colleagues working for just causes feel more contented for giving back society something.
"Mr Zhou helped me unselfishly. He didn't charge any fees", Qiao said. "He pedaled with me against strong winds many a time but didn't complain even once. Without him I wouldn't have been able to get my hard-earned money. He speaks for the disadvantaged people."
More and more migrant workers are seeking legal help to get their unpaid wages, Zhou said. That has made the work of the legal aid station very difficult because it has only three fulltime lawyers. It has received 752 enquiries involving 1,361 people in the past couple of months, with claims amounting to 5.18 million yuan (US$724,000), Zhou said. "Money is the biggest problem. Despite the funds from Belgium and financial support of the local lawyers' association and the authorities, the legal aid cell still lacks money."
Most of complaints the legal aid cell gets are related to unpaid wages, compensation for injuries sustained during work and termination of contracts. According to existing laws, a defendant in an unpaid case has to pay the suing fee only. He/she is exempt from paying for other expenditures such as travel and lawyer fees.
Migrant workers cannot afford the fees, Zhou said. Take an arrear pay case, for instance. A worker can only get the exact sum that's due to him/her - he/she is not paid any additional amount as compensation by the accused. The employer is not fined or punished even if he/she gives the money back a year later than the deadline.
In fact, legal aid cells in 21 provinces and municipalities share the same heavy burden and economic constraint, even though each is subsidized by the US$500,000-project.
"We want the project to inspire the Chinese people to shed more light on the protection of migrant workers," said UNDP senior deputy resident representative Alessandra Tisot. "The money, like a little light, is limited. But I believe if there is light there is hope," she said. "In order to continue with the service, we'll cooperate with all stakeholders to find more groups willing to help." Some companies share certain social responsibilities. "They should be the first to support such a project."
Beijing-based veteran lawyer Tong Lihua, who fights for the rights of migrant workers, said the government had been putting more efforts into such projects for migrant workers. Tong played a key role, on behalf of the All-China Lawyers' Association, to implement the project.
"In three to five years the project can be sustained with financial aid from within the country," said Tong. A fund-raising campaign has been launched to make the general public more aware that China's economic boom cannot be sustained without the labor of the country's 15 million migrant workers, many of who are not paid properly.
The government has been taking steps to deal with the problem for the last couple of years. The State Council, the country's cabinet, granted workers the rights to seek free legal aid in workplace disputes in 2006. "That's why even though the overall situation is improving, the number of legal cases keeps rising," Tong said.
In 2006, about 120,000 migrant workers received help from the government's legal aid scheme. The figure jumped 65 percent over the previous year. The government plays the leading role in protecting migrant workers' rights, but cells like the Legal Aid Station for Migrant Work also have a big role to play, Tong said.
Minister counselor of the Belgium embassy in Beijing Michele Deneffe said the Chinese government was fully aware of the problem and was determined to find a solution. "That's why we offered help though it will take time to overcome the challenge because China has a huge number of migrant workers."
"The current project will help achieve a long-term working mechanism to institutionalize the legal aid system for migrant workers and other underprivileged groups and train qualified law professionals working specially for it," said Tisot. She suggested a credit system, blacklisting employers who ill-treat migrant workers, be set up to raise their legal awareness.
And Zhou urged migrant workers to discuss more about the basic knowledge of the law, and asked them to make it a point to sign working contracts and keep a working diary, to better protect their own rights.
"Knowledge is the only thing we have that can change our destiny," Qiao said. "I call my son over the phone almost every day, prodding him to study well. I know he can have a brighter future and live a better life than me only if he studies well."
(China Daily February 26, 2008)