Cablegate: Chongqing Labor Lawyer Sees Legal System Progress

DE RUEHCN #0210/01 2720720
R 290720Z SEP 09



E.O. 12958: N/A

CHENGDU 00000210 001.2 OF 002

1. (U) This cable contains sensitive but unclassified
information - not for distribution on the Internet.

2. (SBU) Summary: After 13 years of advocating for migrant
workers' legal rights, Chongqing lawyer Zhou Litai says he has
seen positive progress, especially in the PRC's legal system.
Zhou's firm faces significant challenges, however, including
local officials' willingness to overlook the law in favor of
economic development, official pressure for him to close down,
and clients' lack of funds to pay legal fees. The global
financial crisis hit migrant workers -- and his firm --
particularly hard, with many workers suddenly out of work and
even those whose cases he won often unwilling to pay him out of
their meager winnings. Zhou sought USG funding for a worker
rights legal library based on prior cases. Guizhou Province is
an exception to the trend toward progress on worker rights, Zhou
said, with the provincial government and local courts refusing
to address even salary-related cases. End Summary.

3. (SBU) Consul General met September 22 with labor lawyer Zhou
Litai, founder and head of the Chongqing Zhou Litai Law Firm.
Established in Chongqing in 2001, the firm now employs over 75
people across three offices, including Shenzhen (added in 2005
to handle Guangdong cases), and another in Wanzhou, Chongqing
Municipality (added in 2008). The firm's Chongqing offices have
a dormitory-style arrangement and in-house cook, with all
lawyers living and eating together, which Zhou said allows him
to keep lawyers on staff that otherwise would not be able to
survive on the low salary he offers of roughly RMB 2,000 per
month (USD 300). Zhou draws his lawyers from rural areas, and
some are even former migrant farmers themselves. Lawyers from
urban areas cannot do this work well, Zhou said, as they lack an
experience-based understanding of what rural and migrant worker
life is really like.

4. (SBU) Zhou started offering legal assistance to migrant
workers in 1996 to secure their labor rights, and reports that,
all told, he has filed more than 13,000 cases. Though
originally Zhou accepted only injury or death cases in the
immediate vicinity of his offices, he now accepts cases from all
over China except the TAR, and has broadened his practice to
include workplace injury, salary arrears, social security, and
disputes involving resettlement in the area of the Three Gorges

Zhou Sees Positive Progress, Yet Challenges

5. (SBU) After 13 years of advocating for migrant workers' legal
rights, Zhou told CG he has seen positive progress, particularly
improvements in the PRC's legal system. The central government
has published a series of laws and regulations to protect
workers' rights and has increased standards for compensation of
injured workers, he said. Zhou's firm has helped migrant
workers realize that they have rights protected under PRC law
and has helped them increasingly turn to the legal system for
protection. These efforts have drawn significant media
attention at home and abroad, Zhou added, including reports by
China's CCTV, the BBC, CNN, and others.

6. (SBU) Despite these positive trends, Zhou still faces
significant obstacles in his work. Local protectionism, for
example, remains a serious problem as local governments, eager
to develop the economy, are willing to overlook provisions of
the law and sacrifice the health -- or even lives -- of workers,
he said. The firm itself faces pressure from government
entities unhappy with Zhou's lawsuits, and often receives little
to no support from related government departments. The
government cannot actually force his firm to close, however,
because every step he and his firm takes in their cases are in
accordance with the law, he said. Financially, the firm faces
difficulties in that their clients lack funds to pay for legal
services, and some clients simply disappear after winning a case
and receiving compensation, leaving the attorney fees unpaid.
The firm's low paychecks also mean retention of lawyers is
difficult, he added.

Lawyer Appeals to USG for Grants: Photos of Limbless Workers
--------------------------------------------- ---------------

7. (SBU) Mr. Zhou made a strong appeal for three million RMB
(440,000) in grant monies from the U.S. Government to establish
a legal reference library based on the thousands of worker
rights cases that he has filed since 1996. Zhou took CG into a
storage room with piles of boxed documents, from which he took
out three black shoe boxes filled with dozens of group photos of
Chinese workers who had lost one or more limbs in industrial
accidents. (Note: CG told Zhou that there was often an annual
cycle for applying for grants of this type, and promised to
notify Zhou should an opportunity arise to apply for worker

CHENGDU 00000210 002.2 OF 002

rights-related grants. End Note.)

Impact of Financial Crisis, Returning Migrant Workers
--------------------------------------------- --------

8. (SBU) Despite signs of "recovery" in the financial system,
Zhou's firm continues to see and feel the impact of the global
financial crisis on the migrant labor community, he said.
During a previous meeting with PolEconOff, Zhou described these
challenges in greater detail, saying that due to the crisis many
businesses were unwilling to pay overtime as they had in the
past. An increased number of bankrupt companies also were
unable to pay workers as factories simply closed overnight,
giving workers just enough to get home. As a consequence, the
types of cases Zhou's firm saw changed, shifting from a
predominance of workplace injury cases to issues of
compensation, social security, and unemployment insurance.
Moreover, he noted, their success rate declined, and even
plaintiffs who won their cases were been reluctant to pay the
firm for its services.

Guizhou Province: Worker Rights Not Protected

9. (SBU) The province hardest hit by the meltdown in terms of
the effect on migrant labor, Zhou assessed, was Guizhou.
"Guizhou is not a legal society," he said, and the labor and
legal situation there is particularly egregious, with courts and
local politicians uneager to help workers. Guizhou courts are
unwilling to even accept salary-related cases, he told
PolEconOff. Zhou stressed his view that unhappiness among
Guizhou's migrant labor population, combined with lack of access
to legal remedies, were a significant contributor to the public
outrage that spilled over in the July 2008 riots in Weng'an,
sparked by public reaction to local police handling of the death
of a teenage girl.

© Scoop Media

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