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Labour Arbitration Law welcome but systemic change, investment needed

A new law taking effect on 1 May has the potential to help streamline the highly frustrating administrative procedures that currently plague labour disputes in China. However, China Labour Bulletin (CLB) warns that long-term systemic reform of, and greatly increased investment in, China's institutions of public redress will be needed in order to cope with burgeoning caseloads and realize the law's full potential. 

The Labour Dispute Mediation and Arbitration Law for the first time makes arbitration committee rulings in routine cases legally binding, abolishes the arbitration application fee, and extends the time limit for filing an arbitration case from 60 days to one year.

Yet numerous problems that remain in China's labyrinthine and often bewildering labour arbitration and court system confront workers seeking redress for violations of their rights. To mark the implementation of the Arbitration Law next week, CLB today publishes a new research report entitled Help or Hindrance to Workers: China's Institutions of Public Redress which examines these problems and suggests ways in which they can be resolved.

The report is based on a detailed analysis of three work-related injury and illness cases handled by CLB as part of its Labour Rights Litigation Programme. In one case it took an injured worker over a decade to get any disability compensation. In another, it was only after a migrant worker died of leukaemia that his parents were partially compensated for the family's massive medical bills. And a former gemstone worker suffering from silicosis only received compensation after a high profile official intervention. He died six months later.

The report shows that arbitration committees are ill-equipped to deal with the recent dramatic rise in the number of labour disputes in China. Moreover, they are unduly influenced in their decision making by powerful corporations and individuals. They have become overly bureaucratic, and, all too often, officials whose job it is to help citizens seek redress appear not to care about the plight of workers in desperate need of help.

As the noted Chinese legal scholar He Weifang has pointed out, these institutions "were originally meant to seek justice [but] have become institutions that dispense injustice. Institutions that were meant to resolve disputes have become institutions that create them and institutions that were meant to allay popular resentment have become institutions that stir it up."

The number of labour disputes has risen even more sharply since the introduction of the Labour Contract Law on 1 January. Therefore, finding more effective means and channels for resolving these disputes should form an important part of the current Chinese leadership’s project for a "harmonious society." CLB recommends that the government invests far more in its institutions of public redress, makes the arbitration process more transparent and accountable to public scrutiny and encourages trade unions to play a more active role in collective bargaining and in so doing resolve disputes before arbitration or litigation becomes necessary.

Help or Hindrance to Workers: China's Institutions of Public Redress is published as a PDF on CLB’s website on 23 April 2008.