China lawyer fights for workers, himself

Awards for injured gain wide attention, official harassment

January 11, 2002|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Officials in the South China boomtown of Shenzhen are trying to close the practice of a lawyer who has won nationwide attention for winning large awards on behalf of workers maimed in factories there.

However, Zhou Litai refuses to close his office and says he is being harassed by local officials because he has exposed unsafe working conditions, won lawsuits and alarmed foreign investors.

"It's toilet paper," Zhou said, referring to the government order with customary bluntness in an interview yesterday. "They hate me."

Judicial officials in Shenzhen issued the closure order last month, saying Zhou's law practice was illegal. "If you refuse to correct your misconduct, we'll take further legal action against you," said the notice, issued by the Judiciary Bureau in Shenzhen's Longgang district.

Zhou, 45, has made a name for himself by suing factories on behalf of hundreds of migrant laborers who have lost arms, hands, fingers and feet in industrial accidents. Most of the victims worked in South China's Pearl River Delta, the nation's economic engine, producing everything from Barbie dolls and Ralph Lauren sweaters to Nike shoes and North Face jackets.

Despite Mao Tse-tung's pledge that workers would be the masters of the nation, they enjoy few rights and toil in some of the world's most dangerous conditions. More than 10,000 people a year die in floods, cave-ins and gas explosions in China's coal mines.

In 1995, the government enacted a law allowing workers to sue employers for injuries resulting from unsafe working conditions. Zhou, an attorney from the southwestern city of Chongqing, went to Shenzhen and began taking on clients.

Because most of the disabled laborers had little money and could not work, he set up a two-floor apartment that he shares with more than 30 workers. It is a haunting place, filled with amputees who spend their days watching television and waiting for justice from local courts.

Zhou says he has about 700 clients, 500 in the Pearl River Delta, which flows through Hong Kong to the South China Sea. He says he works on a contingency basis, taking 10 percent of awards. The workers pay nothing if they lose.

Last month's closure order did not specify why local officials deemed Zhou's practice illegal, but the government may be focusing on his apartment in Shenzhen. China permits attorneys licensed in one city to represent clients in another, but not to maintain a second office there. Zhou has an office in Chongqing, where he is licensed. He insists that the apartment is not a place of business.

"I just rent an apartment for the disabled and injured workers, and sometimes I just live with them," said Zhou, a voluble man who peppers his sentences with vulgarities in his native Chongqing dialect. "It's not a lawyer's office."

Zhou said government officials have harassed him because they fear his successes in court will scare off foreign investors hoping to take advantage of China's lax labor safety standards. When he began practicing in Shenzhen, the local government took away his law license and gave it back only after he sued.

Zhou attributed the timing of last month's order to a case that received widespread attention last year in the Chinese press. Zhou represented 56 female employees of a Korean-owned wig factory who said they were strip-searched in front of male managers on suspicion of stealing raw materials.

The company settled the case in September, agreeing to pay each worker $483 - a significant sum in an area where laborers usually earn less than a dollar a day.

Some of Zhou's clients have suffered far worse. Managers in South China often force laborers to work 12-hour shifts in factories with outdated machinery. It is not uncommon for workers to fall asleep on a production line and lose a hand or an arm.

That is what happened in 1999 to Liu Tao, a textile worker who collapsed after working 78 hours of overtime in 19 days. She fell onto a machine and lost both arms. Last year, the Shenzhen City Intermediate Court awarded her the staggering sum of $191,000.

China's legal system is in its infancy, so exposing unsafe working conditions and enforcing labor laws is difficult. In poorer areas, local governments are reluctant to shut down illegal factories and coal mines because of the tax revenue and wages they generate.

When disaster strikes, local officials often try to cover it up, ordering police to set up roadblocks to keep out Chinese journalists and detain foreign reporters. Last year, local officials sealed off a village in East China's Jiangxi province where 42 people - most of them children - were killed when a fireworks explosion demolished a school.

Outraged parents blamed the school for forcing children to make firecrackers during class. China's central government claimed that the practice had already stopped and blamed the explosion on a mad bomber nicknamed "Psycho."

Zhou is appealing the government order to close his law practice to Shenzhen's Longgang District Court. Although most of his work is in and around Shenzhen, he says he does not want to transfer his license there because it would give local authorities more leverage over him.

"If I'm a lawyer in Shenzhen, they will have a whole series of ways to punish me," said Zhou, who was in Beijing for a meeting on Chinese legal reform. "But if I leave, the conditions of those workers who come from other provinces to Shenzhen will be even worse."

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