Dongguan cracks down on labour rights advocates

The authorities in China’s manufacturing heartland, Dongguan, are attempting to limit and control the activities of citizen agents (公民代理人), self-trained labour rights advocates who help workers who cannot afford professional legal services file labour dispute cases at arbitration hearings and courts.

Citizen agents in Dongguan, many of whom are former migrant workers, have now been barred from handling labour dispute cases involving more than three people, and the number of cases they can handle each year has been limited to just three, according to a report in Southern Workers News (南方工报).

The move against citizen agents followed an enlarged session of the Dongguan City Legal Services Market Management Joint Conference, held on 2 September 2009. The conference was attended by officials from the city’s labour department, trade union, hospitals and judicial departments, who accused some citizen agents of being self-serving and of exploiting vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in society.

The conference claimed there was now a need to “better regulate the legal services market” and demanded more rigorous inspection of citizen agents’ qualifications and even the establishment of a register of agents and their clients suspected of abusing the labour dispute resolution system.

Officials cited, as the legal justification for their actions, temporary regulations issued in 2003 by the Guangdong Provincial Labour Dispute Arbitration Committee which gives local arbitration committees the right to bar any workers’ representatives it deems unsuitable (不适合). However this claim was disputed by labour rights lawyers who pointed out that there were no national or local regulations that specifically limited the number of cases citizen agents could handle.

“This measure has no legal basis. It is essentially illegal,” civil rights lawyer, Yang Zaixin, told Radio Free Asia.

Dongguan, which has a migrant worker population of about eight million, has seen a massive upsurge in the number of labour disputes over the last few years. In 2008, Dongguan’s courts dealt with 23,044 such disputes, a 159 percent increase over the previous year. Yet the city currently only has an estimated 72 citizen agents and agencies. Limiting them to three cases a year would reduce their coverage to just one percent of the city’s labour rights litigation cases.

The move to rein in the activities of citizen agents was endorsed by the municipal trade union, which, in conjunction with a local law firm, currently provides free legal advice and consultation to workers once a month at its “help centre for workers in difficulty.”

While the municipal union’s legal services are helpful, they will in no way be able to make up for the shortfall in legal representation that will inevitably result from the crackdown on citizen agents. And the consequences for workers in particular and society as a whole could be very serious. If workers are denied access to legal consultation, advice and representation, their legal rights will not be adequately protected and they will be more likely to adopt extra-legal measures in seeking redress for their grievances.

And it is not just Dongguan that is seeking to control citizen agents. The coastal province of Jiangxi has also issued regulations that, while not limiting case loads, restrict the types of people who can act as representatives in labour dispute arbitration hearings.

The crackdown on citizen agents is part of a nationwide campaign to bring the activities of civil rights advocates, lawyers and non-governmental organizations under stricter government control and supervision.
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