Soliciting justice

By Feng Shu Source:Global Times Published: 2012-11-9 21:25:04

Zhou Litai leans against the piles of case files in his office in Chongqing.Photo: Courtesy Zhou Litai
Zhou Litai leans against the piles of case files in his office in Chongqing.Photo: Courtesy Zhou Litai

After almost 17 years of fighting for the rights of tens of thousands of migrant workers across China, 56-year-old lawyer Zhou Litai closed his law firm in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, a city known for its huge concentration of more than 8 million migrant workers.

Despite his admirable track record of handling more than 12,000 lawsuits for migrant workers, Zhou calls his withdrawal from Shenzhen a "decision without an alternative." With around 700 migrant workers still owing him nearly 5 million yuan ($800,000) in legal fees, his firm was mired in a difficult financial situation.

Dubbed as "the patron saint of migrant workers," Zhou prefers to call himself a "disadvantaged person" who needs to defend his own rights. "I am stuck in a vicious cycle," he told the Global Times over the phone. "My Chongqing office has to sharply reduce the number of lawsuits it accepts from migrant workers," he added.

A famous lawyer from nowhere

Having been born in Chongqing's Kaixian county, Zhou likes to call himself a typical "farmer and illiterate." With only two years of official education in primary school, he served as a soldier in the Tibet Autonomous Region in the 1970s to help build an oil pipeline there. In 1979 he returned to his hometown and became a worker at a local brick factory.

Zhou says his curiosity and passion for law was sparked by the 1959 Chinese film Windstorm, about lawyer Shi Yang, who famously tried to organize a workers' strike in 1923. "He spoke in defense of workers no matter how tough the enemy was. I really admired his courage and eloquent speeches," said Zhou.

Through self-instruction, he passed China's national bar exam in 1986. After serving as a legal aid worker for a few years in a small town, Zhou was brought to Shenzhen in May 1996 by a labor dispute case, in which a migrant worker from his hometown was run over by a truck on his way home from work. By arguing that the accident should be regarded as an on-the-job incident, Zhou helped the victim's family get a huge compensation package of more than 300,000 yuan.

"After that I couldn't stop, as clients came one after another, all cases regarding the labor rights of migrant workers, as few lawyers in Shenzhen at that time would accept such cases," Zhou said.

In his second case, after nearly two years of litigation, Zhou helped a migrant worker named Peng Gangzhong receive as much as 178,000 yuan in compensation for the loss of his left arm, a sum much higher than the compensation limit of around 33,000 yuan dictated by the local government.

Zhou says prior to 2006, every single case was a risk, financially speaking. His contract stated that he'd be paid nothing for cases he lost. At the same time, his law firm literally became a first-aid shelter for its clients. From 1996 to 1997 alone, Zhou took in a total of more than 200 migrant workers who'd been injured in workplace accidents, providing them with free room and board.

I am not Lei Feng 

Despite his series of court victories, Zhou himself faces a growing mountain of debt. "Around 60 percent of my clients, including Peng, simply ran off without paying me a cent. There is a serious credit deficiency among migrant workers. Who will dare to help them in the future?" said Zhou.

But he hasn't taken it lying down. In March 2004, Zhou filed a lawsuit against one of his clients, Liu Zhaozheng, who failed to pay him 18,000 yuan in legal fees. The case immediately drew wide attention, making Zhou a controversial figure for standing against the very people he had been fighting for.

"I am not Lei Feng," said Zhou, referring to a Chinese altruistic folk hero. "I am just a lawyer who also needs to survive by working hard."

After opening a law firm in Chongqing in 2001, Zhou officially opened his Shenzhen law firm in September 2005, this time offering no free lunch. In 2006, he started to ask all of his clients to pay an initial legal fee of around 2,000 yuan before legal proceedings began. This hasn't had a negative impact on his business. On the contrary, from 2004 to 2008, the number of cases Zhou's firm took on doubled each year, and in 2005 alone, his firm handled more than 1,000 labor dispute cases.

This may signal the awakening of migrant workers' awareness for their rights, but Zhou says it also shows there are too few lawyers like him who fight for China's more than 250 million migrant workers. "It's a very complicated group and not easy to work with. Standing on their side basically means standing opposite the local government and people with power," he said. "On average, it takes 1,074 days for a lawyer to complete a workplace injury case. It's hard to make money."

The real reason that finally prompted Zhou to leave Shenzhen, however, has more to do with the fact that the local government has improved policies and regulations to protect migrant workers' basic rights and the rising awareness of employers in terms of occupational hazards and responding to workers' demands.

"Nevertheless, it's harder to win labor dispute cases nowadays, when the rate of failure has increased from 10 percent before 2008 to the current 50 percent," Zhou said, adding that in many cases, the government chooses to be lenient toward companies. "They are afraid that awarding high compensation to workers might bring a negative impact on the local investment environment amid the global financial crisis."

Career transition 

Shouldering a debt of more than 2 million yuan and 400,000 yuan in unpaid taxes, Zhou has not yet managed to pay his staff's September salaries.

But throughout his interview with the Global Times, he spoke of his accomplishments with pride. "As a lawyer, I am happy to see all the progress and change that have come as a result of my work, finally pushing forward the progress of China's legal system."

Zhou says it's time to withdraw from labor dispute cases involving migrant workers. He is now trying to adjust to his new role - providing legal advice to companies. "I am trying to draft regulations for companies in terms of how to manage their employees by avoiding potential labor disputes," said Zhou.

But what he wants to do most is build a private museum to document Chinese migrant workers' struggle to defend their rights over the past few decades. "Every case I have handled is a story, reflecting the improvement of China's legislation on migrant workers. It's important to leave them as evidence for the record of China's social progress," Zhou added. In his office, there are piles of case files that have been fastened together, representing what Zhou calls more than 10 thousand tragedies embedded in China's fast-running economic engine.

In the grand scheme, the legacy of Zhou Litai as a symbol of his era in Guangdong is destined to fade away.

"What tops our agenda now is understanding how we can work within the system to help migrant workers," said Wang Xiumo with the Chongqing Academy of Social Sciences. "After all, if we pin our hopes for justice on a single person, who might also be fragile and limited in his power, then the promise of justice is not firm at all."

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