China: “Undercover” migrant worker exposes labour violations

On 1 September 2008, Huang Weimu walked into Guangzhou’s Panyu District Labour Bureau and demanded 55,334 yuan for the past five month’s work done at the Huizhi Garment Factory. Huang wasn’t a stereotypical migrant worker, willing to be cheated and exploited, on the contrary: he specifically chose the factory because he knew it didn’t sign labour contracts. Huang deliberately worked at the Huizhi Garment Factor for five months “undercover,” stealthily collecting evidence of labour violations. Huang, who considers himself “the biggest dark horse in migrant worker history,” posted his undercover exploits on the Internet and rapidly became a cause celebre, an example of how migrant workers are proactively working to defend their rights and using the media and the Internet as a tool to publicize their cases.

Huang’s story is even more remarkable in the context of a recent survey done by the Guangzhou Federation of Trade Unions and Guangzhou University, which showed that only 7.2 percent of workers know how to talk to their boss about salary issues, and 54.2 percent have no idea what the collective consultative system is..

However, Huang is certainly not alone. Many other migrant workers are willing and determined to defend their own rights and the rights of their fellow workers. In a 2007 article in the magazine Liao Wang, it was estimated that the Pearl River Delta manufacturing area had more than 500 “citizen agents” (gongmin dailiren). These citizen agents, almost all former migrant workers, have become self-made experts in labour law, and will take on other migrant worker labour dispute cases for a small fee. Although the citizen agents aren’t considered “lawyers”, they can take on a larger number of cases than traditional lawyers, and at a lower cost. In addition, citizen agents often understand labour laws in more depth than their lawyer colleagues who often prefer not to handle many labour cases due to relatively small amounts of money involved. The citizen agents, therefore, represent another way in which consciousness about effectively using the law to defend one’s rights is increasing in the migrant worker community (For more information about citizen agents, see this translated article provided by China Labor News Translations).

CLB hopes Huang Weimu’s careful collection of evidence and bold assertion of his legal rights will serve as a positive example to other migrant workers, and encourage more of them not to meekly accept violations of their labour rights, butnegotiate decent salaries and contracts, either individually or through collective bargaining, with management.

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