Qi Yunhui didn’t even graduate from middle school, but on a recent afternoon he addressed the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court with the confidence of a seasoned litigator.
When he came to Shenzhen in 2002, the fast talking native of China’s central province of Hubei worked in a leather shoe factory. Now, he is part of a new and growing breed of "citizens’ agents", former workers offering cheap legal aid to fellow migrants involved in labour disputes.
In the past five years or so, these self-taught "barefoot" labour lawyers have proliferated, filling an important niche in a country where migrant workers are increasingly caught in a dilemma — they are encouraged by the leadership to know their rights, but lack effective, efficient channels to protect them.
"We want to encourage people to go to court," Qi, 30, said over dinner with five toy factory workers he was representing in a case over unpaid overtime.
China’s 150 million internal migrants, mostly working for low wages in export processing factories or in construction, have helped write the country’s economic success story.
But their rights have been consistently sidelined, and tales of illegally low pay, abusive factory conditions and a litany of contract violations are commonplace.