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Paralegals in China: Profession Develops from Toy Scandal

By December 14, 2007Paralegal utilization

The toy recalls coming out of China apparently have more consequences than U.S. citizens seem to realize.  According to an article written in YaleGlobal online, not often noted in the uproar was that the toys shipped from China are mostly made by Hong Kong firms using cheap labor in China. Their factories in China make toys for big brand-name companies such as Mattel and Disney based on designs that the American corporations provide.

No mention has been made of the many hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers who labor under dangerous conditions, making toys and many hundreds of other kinds of export products. If lead paint is used, workers are the ones exposed to lead hour after hour. In numerous industries, all too often workers are exposed to noxious fumes and dangerous machinery. They are poor migrants from China’s countryside, and they endure work days averaging 11 hours, six to seven days a week, to earn take-home pay of $100 or less a month.

Most of the CSR (corporate-social responsibility) programs have made little headway in improving the conditions of workers who contract occupational diseases or are injured. Bosses simply discard most of them with scant compensation. Traumatized, they are in need of legal, moral and financial support. To secure adequate compensation requires them to run a gauntlet of legal procedures they can ill afford.

Increasingly, they have begun turning to people similar to themselves who have become paralegals. Many of these are former workers who had been injured or contracted occupational diseases and sued their bosses for compensation. After settling their own cases, they began helping others to do the same, and over time they have become increasingly conversant with the law and legal proceedings. In the Pearl River Delta region alone, there are now some 500 such paralegals, known in China as “citizens’ agents.” To support themselves, most of them charge a percentage of the compensation when a case is successful. Some register as a legal counseling service; others attach themselves to law firms, and yet others set up NGOs, (non-governmental organizations) though normally these need to be disguised by being registered as businesses.

By 2007, these citizens’ agents had become successful to the point of arousing open hostility from some manufacturers, and they had come to the attention of the provincial government. The authorities started to clamp down on their activities by disqualifying them from providing legal representation.

Huang Qingnan, a paralegal who headed a labor NGO, was brutally attacked in broad daylight by two thugs, who inflicted a number of vicious stab wounds. One of his legs was repeatedly hacked at and almost severed. At the time of writing, Huang is still in critical condition, and if he survives, may lose his leg. Huang was already badly scarred and deformed due to an industrial fire, which had led him to become a paralegal.

The assault against him followed on the heels of two recent daytime hooligan attacks against Huang’s NGO office. In the first of these, as a warning, several men destroyed the NGO’s doors with iron bars. In the second incident, a larger group of thugs wielding steel poles smashed the office and its equipment and threatened workers there seeking legal aid, while several local policemen looked on.

The brutality against Huang could herald the beginning of a new stage in the Delta’s labor history. It also puts new pressure on the major multinational corporations whose brand-name products, such as iPod, are produced in this area. The corporations do not want it said that their brand-name goods are produced in a lawless, repressive environment. The toy recalls may be only first of the publicity nightmares the companies will need to fend off.