Fei Mingli, a slight teenager from Sichuan province, came to this bustling Chinese factory town in 1998 to seek her fortune in a textile factory, cranking out bluejeans and tank tops for the Western world. Sometime after midnight July 22, she went out for a walk.
Dogs patrolling the factory grounds attacked the 17-year-old, breaking her right leg and ripping chunks from her nose, head and elbows. Fei had violated a company rule that ordered all workers locked in their dormitories by midnight. She was hospitalized for 62 days.
When her father came to Shenzhen asking for compensation, the factory bosses added insult to her injuries by firing the girl and paying only medical expenses.
Fei's case could have sunk into the oblivion of hundreds of thousands of others like hers in China, where workers' rights are routinely sacrificed at the altar of economic development. But Fei and her father beat a path to a man who has become famous for standing up for workers in a country with one of the worst occupational safety records in the world.
Lawyer Zhou Litai took the case, and late last year, after proving that the factory did not have a dog permit and that there had been six similar attacks since 1994, he won Fei a $6,000 settlement--a big chunk of change in a country where millions of laborers barely clear $1,000 a year.
"Lawyer Zhou is a good man," said Fei Zhongming, Mingli's father. "Without him, we would have had nothing. He won justice for us."
China once advertised itself as a socialist workers' paradise. But in its mad rush to become a modern industrialized nation in the 20 years since economic reforms opened doors to the West, China's cutthroat system has victimized average laborers. With China preparing to enter the World Trade Organization, the United States and other advanced nations have pushed for some type of binding international labor standards; this was one of the issues behind demonstrations during the WTO's meeting in Seattle in November. But China and other developing countries have opposed such standards.
In the first nine months of last year, 3,464 miners died in China--about the same as 1998--one of the worst rates per ton of minerals mined in the world. The only place where official statistics have been released for industrial accidents is Shenzhen. In 1998, 12,189 workers were seriously injured and 80 died in industrial accidents in its 9,582 factories, although the real number is believed to be much higher.
More than 90 percent of those injured lost a limb. Statistics from the state hospital in Shenzhen's Bao'an county tell a gruesome tale. In the hospital's Building 7, 47 patients have lost hands; in Building 6, 21 patients have third-degree burns; in Building 5, 42 patients have lost legs.
After a ferry sank in November, killing 280 people, China's Communist Party leadership called for a nationwide workplace safety inspection campaign and acknowledged that despite years of hand-wringing about the importance of safety, serious health and safety hazards remain.
"Since 1980, labor standards in China have gotten worse," said Anita Chan, a senior research fellow of the Australian Research Council and an expert on China's labor issues. "In the state sector, workers are losing their jobs, so labor standards are almost as bad as foreign-funded or private-sector factories in inland provinces. . . . As for foreign-funded factories, exploitation and abuses have not diminished in the 1990s. If anything, because of the Asian economic crisis, it has gotten worse."
Attempts by workers to seek help from the government usually end in failure. The Communist government only allows one union to exist--the All-China Federation of Trade Unions--and it has crushed any attempt to organize independent unions. The ACFTU is generally viewed as a mouthpiece for the Communist Party, although in recent years it has fought quietly against some policies and laws that are clearly antilabor.
Born in Sichuan 42 years ago, Zhou was yanked out of school by his parents in third grade and put to work on the land. When he was 17, his father sent him to the forbidding Tibetan plateau as a soldier. He served for five years in some of the harshest conditions on earth.
In 1979, he returned to Sichuan but again had to leave home because his family was too poor to feed him. Zhou found work in a brick factory in Hunan province, making a few dollars a month lugging 220-pound bags of coal and handling scalding bricks that singed the skin off his hands, arms and chest.
"It was normal for the factory not to pay the workers," Zhou recalled. "People were fired for nothing. People were beaten. It was bad."
A friend encouraged Zhou to learn a skill. He took to law, perhaps, he said, because he was infuriated by the exploitation around him. In 1986, he set up shop in Kaixian, his home town, in a poor county close to the smoky metropolis of Chongqing.
Ten years later, Zhou took the first case that would catapult him into national prominence but also land him in serious debt. In May 1996, a husband and wife, both workers at the Happy Toy Factory in Shenzhen, were walking on the factory grounds when they were killed by a delivery truck. The factory denied responsibility for their deaths, leaving the couple's three young children and their aging parents penniless.
The grandparents and the children were living in Sichuan--source for most of the cheap labor that has driven the economic miracle along China's eastern coast. They came to Zhou as a last resort. No lawyer in Shenzhen would take such cases because local governments had warned them against "affecting the investment environment," Zhou said.
As an outsider, Zhou could run a risk. He sued the Happy Toy Factory and won $40,000--marking the first time in Communist China that a court had ordered a factory to pay damages to the family of deceased workers.
Zhou's experience in Shenzhen, meeting maimed workers with tales of exploitation, 18-hour shifts, dormitory lock-downs, dog attacks and decrepit machinery, convinced him that his life's work lay not in Sichuan, but with the Sichuanese who had come to Shenzhen.
"If you don't protect your workers, it doesn't matter how good your products are," he said. "You are creating a social volcano."
Since the toy factory case, Zhou has filed 200 other lawsuits in courts around Shenzhen. He has won 30; most of the others are still pending. He sometimes works on contingency and also receives donations. Along the way, he has angered the Shenzhen city government, which tried to disbar him in 1997 but lost in court.
In late 1997, Zhou found a house in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood on the outskirts of Shenzhen. Since then, 70 injured workers, out of jobs and penniless, have lived with him.
Running the house has thrown Zhou into debt to the tune of thousands of dollars. It has not helped that some of his guests have skipped town after winning their cases without paying him for room and board.
Most of Zhou's adversaries are factories run by Taiwanese, Hong Kong or South Korean companies, which work on a contract basis for Western firms. He has yet to sue a Japanese or American company, he said, because their labor conditions are better.
Workers in Shenzhen say the most dangerous machine is a mold for plastic products called a piji. One false move and a limb can be crushed by huge metal slabs at pressures varying from 40 to 500 tons.
It was on such a machine that Peng Guangzhong lost his right arm last spring. The factory had failed to buy insurance, so his employers fired the 20-year-old immediately. Then, because of his injury, Peng's girlfriend dumped him. He attempted suicide. An arbitration committee said the factory should pay him $4,500. With Zhou's help, Peng sued and won $21,000 in court.
"Lawyer Zhou saved my life," Peng said. "Without him, I'd be dead."
CAPTION: Zhou Litai, second from left, China's first and most prominent lawyer representing injured workers, sits with clients hurt in industrial accidents.