China’s labour dispute court cases increase by over ten percent in 2009

12 March 2010
China’s Supreme Court announced Thursday that the number of labour disputes handled by the country’s courts increased by a further 10.8 percent last year, after nearly doubling in 2008.

In total, there were 317,000 labour dispute cases in 2009, Supreme People’s Court President, Wang Shengjun, stated in his work report to the National People’s Congress, compared with just 126,000 such cases in 2006.

Wang did not provide a breakdown of the labour dispute cases but anecdotal evidence suggests that a very large proportion of the cases were related to wage arrears, non-payment of overtime, economic compensation and insurance contributions.

Wang said the global economic crisis had been a major factor behind the continued rise in the number of court cases generally, and noted that many local courts were now understaffed and overstretched. At the height of the economic crisis, the district court in the Dongguan township of Tangxia reportedly become the most overworked in the country. The three judges in Tangxia needed to handle a total of close to one thousand cases a year, compared with the national average caseload of 45 per judge per year.

In his work report, Wang noted that very few new judges had been added to the roster over the last five years, and stressed there was an urgent need to: “upgrade judicial capabilities and support services for local courts.”

In response to the case overload thus far, local governmental and judicial authorities have been trying to channel labour dispute cases into the mediation and arbitration system and thus obviate the need for a trial. Mediation rates in many industrial areas have soared recently, suggesting that the ten percent increase in court cases does not fully reflect the increase in labour disputes across the country.

Moreover, because the courts are reluctant to take on collective labour disputes, workers with a collective grievance very often seek to resolve their disputes through strikes or other collective action rather than by going to court. As one worker interviewed in a new report by the International Labor Rights Forum said: “as a migrant worker, very often you can’t compete with the factory. If you’re in a group it’s possible to have more influence.”
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