In November 2011, Zhang Guangde received an urgent summons to a factory town in southern China where his son, Tingzhen, was working for Foxconn, the Taiwanese contract electronics manufacturer for Apple and one of China's biggest employers.
Tingzhen, a 28-year-old migrant worker from central China, had been on a ladder, fixing a security light, when he suffered an electric shock, fell about four metres and struck his head on the ground. By the time Mr Zhang arrived at his son’s bedside in Shenzhen, a manufacturing centre in Guangdong province, doctors had removed a portion of his dangerously swollen brain. Tingzhen, once a champion track and field athlete, was bedridden for more than two years and has only recently begun to walk again. He will require care for the rest of his life.
Tingzhen’s accident set his father on a four-year odyssey through every tier of China’s justice system — the courts, arbitration and, when those two avenues failed, a centuries-old petitioning system through which peasants once appealed to imperial authorities for redress.
As China’s once seemingly inexhaustible pool of surplus rural labour is depleted — a moment christened the “Lewis turning point” by economists — the migrant workers who have powered the country’s economic miracle over the past 30 years are gaining unprecedented leverage over their employers in everything from pay and benefit negotiations to disability claims.
随着中国一度看似取之不尽的农村富余劳动力供应逐渐枯竭——经济学家们称这一时刻为“刘易斯拐点”(Lewis turning point)，过去30年间推动中国经济奇迹的农民工正在很多方面获得对雇主的空前影响力，从薪酬和福利谈判，到伤残索赔。
It has led to a surge in industrial unrest and a marked increase in the number of workers taking their cases to court, as the Zhangs did. Others find themselves in legal jeopardy for allegedly “disrupting social order” — a vague charge punishable by up to five years in prison — during the course of their industrial disputes.
But after a series of landmark labour cases over the past two years, China’s workers have secured few legal victories. This has engendered widespread scepticism about the court system’s ability to deliver justice to workers embroiled in disputes with influential employers and local officials. “The situation in China is that laws are trumped by power,” says Mr Zhang. “China is too corrupt and local governments constantly deceive their superiors.”
Wu Guijun, a Shenzhen-based labour activist, reached a similar conclusion after spending a year in detention on charges that were eventually dropped.深圳劳工维权人士吴贵军在被拘留一年后得出了类似的结论，对他的指控最终被撤销。
“China’s judicial system is very bureaucratic and vulnerable to government pressure,” he says. “That makes it hard for workers to safeguard their rights.” Mr Wu was detained during the course of a 2013 dispute during which he allegedly led workers in a protest march that prosecutors said disrupted social order.
The ruling Communist party has signalled its determination to end local interference in court decisions, thus advancing the cause of justice while also centralising Beijing’s control over the legal system. It dedicated its last annual conclave, held in October, to rule of law issues and says it wants to instil enough public trust in the justice system that petitioners will become plaintiffs, and appeal to local courts rather than flocking to Beijing. It also hopes that an effective court and arbitration system can help defuse larger worker protests such as Mr Wu’s before they reach critical mass and spill on to the streets.
The party, however, has also made clear that it has no intention of relinquishing its ultimate authority over the courts. This includes the right to decide verdicts in politically sensitive cases, which are supervised by its powerful Politics and Law Committee.
The outcomes in a spate of high-profile labour cases over the past year suggest that the committee is attempting to strike a delicate balance. While it does not want to sign off on severe punishments that could provoke a backlash from China’s rapidly evolving labour movement, it also does not want to encourage worker activism. Chinese law does not protect the right to strike and independent unions are banned.
“Collective disputes such as strikes are tied up with [government concerns about] stability,” says Chang Kai, a legal expert at Beijing’s Renmin University who advises workers involved in industrial actions. “It’s hard to guarantee workers’ rights in these cases.”
In March, the party’s Central Committee instructed officials to “make the building of harmonious labour relations an urgent task”, noting that “labour tensions have entered a period of increased prominence and frequency and the incidence of labour disputes remains high”.
The official Chinese Academy of Social Sciences recorded a tenfold rise in the number of collective labour disputes involving between 100 and 1,000 workers. These increased from just 23 in 2007 to 209 in 2012. Over the past year there have been industrial actions involving thousands of workers — and in some instances tens of thousands. The China Labour Bulletin, an independent Hong Kong-based advocacy group, documented 1,171 worker protests between June 2011 and December 2013. The CLB also recorded 150 police interventions in worker protests in 2012-13, with arrests made in 69 instances.
据官方的中国社科院(Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)统计，100名至1000名员工参加的群体性劳动争议案件数量在2007年只有23起，到2012年已升至209起，增加了10倍。过去一年出现了涉及数千名员工的劳资纠纷，一些纠纷甚至牵涉到数万名员工。据总部位于香港的独立维权组织《中国劳工通讯》(China Labour Bulletin)记录，2011年6月至2013年12月，中国爆发了1171起员工抗议活动。《中国劳工通讯》的数据还显示，在2012年至2013年的工人抗议中，有150次遭到警方干预，其中69次有抗议者被捕。
The unrest has created a dilemma for local officials who are wary of alienating investors as China’s economy enters a prolonged period of slower growth. “Local governments don’t want to create a legal environment that’s seen to be unfriendly for business, particularly when things are not booming as much as they used to,” says Geoff Crothall, CLB’s research director.
Mr Wu was detained in May 2013 during a march by workers from his furniture-factory employer. The workers objected to the severance terms offered by their boss, who wanted to move the manufacturing operation to a cheaper location in China’s interior.
Now 42, Mr Wu migrated to Guangdong from central Hunan province 13 years ago and had worked at the factory for nine years. He denied leading the march and the charges against him were eventually dropped for lack of evidence.