BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : DECEMBER 11, 2000 ISSUE
INTERNATIONAL -- ASIAN COVER STORY

A Crusader for Industry's Casualties


Visitors to Zhou Litai's Shenzhen apartment had better be ready for the sight of industrial carnage. Flinging open bedroom doors and marching in, the 43-year-old lawyer grabs a man's sleeve and yanks it up to show the stub of what was an arm. Pulling the covers off a young woman resting on a bed, Zhou angrily points to where her leg once was. In the living room, four people are playing cards--a real feat, since all of them are missing hands or arms. At any one time, as many as 30 men and women are camped out at Zhou's flat, all victims of industrial accidents, all out of work, and most with no home of their own.

DEADLY. As Zhou graphically illustrates, the safety record for migrant workers in China's export-oriented factories is among the worst in the world. Last year, in Shenzhen alone, Zhou estimates, 20,000 workers were seriously injured on the job. Across the country, tens of thousands die working at factories, coal mines, and construction sites each year, according to Chinese press reports. Zhou, one of the few lawyers in China who represent migrant workers, is devoted to making the workplace safer.

Born to a farming family in rural Sichuan, Zhou could find work only in a brick-and-tile factory, a dead-end job where he worked long hours for low pay. Determined to better himself, he studied on his own to become a lawyer, and not long after passing national law exams, in 1986, he began taking on the cases of migrant workers. As a former factory hand, he says, ''I understand how a worker feels when his rights are violated.''

Zhou blames China's safety record on poor training, excessive overtime, and outdated equipment, brought in mainly by Taiwanese and Hong Kong factory owners. Add to that the dismissive attitude of officials and a lax attitude toward China's labor law. ''There is very weak supervision by the government,'' says Zhou. ''The law isn't enforced.''

Since he moved to Shenzhen in 1997, Zhou has successfully brought 50 cases, winning as much as $36,000 in compensation for his clients. In one case, he forced an employer to replace his client's prosthetic arm every four years.

It hasn't been easy: Factory owners and local officials have tried to thwart him every step of the way. Zhou argues that he's acting not only for the injured but also for his country. ''If we don't protect workers' rights,'' he says, ''it will result in social instability.'' Given China's growing labor protests, it's hard to disagree.

By Dexter Roberts in Shenzhen

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A Crusader for Industry's Casualties



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