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Labour lawsuits double in 2008

Labour related lawsuits nearly doubled last year, reflecting the sharp increase in factory closures and wage defaults, workers increased awareness of their rights and their willingness to seek redress for rights violations through the judicial system.

Shen Deyong, vice-president of the Supreme People’s Court, told a Beijing press conference on 3 March that the number of labor-related lawsuits filed in 2008 jumped by 95 percent compared with 2007, the largest increase for all types of lawsuit.

Shen said that in some parts of China’s manufacturing heartland, the southeast coast, the number of labour related lawsuits had increased by around 200 percent. Shen did not give any concrete figures but official statistics from one southeastern city, Xiamen, showed that labour related lawsuits more than doubled from 3,327 in 2007 to 8,313 in 2008.

The figures cited critically do not include labour dispute mediation or arbitration cases, both of which have also increased sharply over the last year. The central government has been pushing local authorities to resolve as many labour dispute cases as possible through the mediation process, while the new Arbitration Law, introduced on 1 May last year, streamlined case handling procedures and, for the first time, made arbitration court rulings legally binding in routine cases.

The sharp increase in lawsuits, Shen said, was “closely connected to businesses slumping and factories being shut down.” However, he also acknowledged that the introduction of the Labour Contract Law last year had raised awareness of workers’ rights and contributed to the increase in the number of lawsuits filed.

It is only really in the last decade that workers have been willing and able to use the court system to claim unpaid wages and benefits, work-related injury and discrimination compensation. In many parts of China it is becoming easier to find a lawyer willing to take on labour related cases, while in Guangdong, hundreds of “citizen agents” help workers file arbitration and routine civil court cases.

Worker plaintiffs win in the vast majority of labour dispute cases, largely because the rights violations are so egregious that the court has no option but to rule in their favour, but also because in most labour related cases courts do rule independently and according to legal statute.

China Labour Bulletin has been running a labour rights litigation project in mainland China since 2003. From June 2007 to June 2008, CLB and its partner organizations adopted close to 600 new labour rights cases, involving more than 650 worker plaintiffs and concluded about 315 cases in this period. The worker plaintiffs won in more than 95 percent of the concluded cases, obtaining compensation for work-related injury, recovering unpaid wages, getting job reinstatement, or obtained other benefits such as labour insurance payouts. In total, the workers obtained 9.42 million yuan in compensation and other benefits.