China Program

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China’s GDP has grown ten-fold since it began market reforms in 1978. This growth has dramatically cut poverty rates, led the country to the forefront of a range of industries and created whole new cities. The impact of these changes on the Chinese workers has been equally dramatic, delivering both opportunities and challenges.

Growth has attracted large numbers of rural Chinese to factories, construction sites and service jobs in urban areas. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, these “migrant workers” numbered over 131 million in 2006—or about half the population of the United States. Workers in state-owned enterprises, meanwhile, have seen their jobs and benefits come under pressure. Workers’ protests have grown, as have efforts to protect labor rights through arbitration and the courts.

In an effort to stabilize industrial relations, the Chinese government enacted several pieces of landmark legislation in 2008 that strengthened workplace protections and increased access to the legal system. A new Labor Contract Law went into effect on January 1, 2008, mandating contracts for all employees, while reinforcing existing rules on work hours, wages, social benefits, and bargaining. The Employment Promotion Law (EPL), which went into effect on the same day, expanded anti-discrimination provisions from the Labor Law of 1994, for the first time granting migrant workers a right of action if they are discriminated against based on their residency status. Finally, on May 1, 2008, the Law on Labor Dispute Mediation and Arbitration went into effect, facilitating quicker, cheaper and easier access for workers to mediation and arbitration.

The ILRF has been working since 2003 with partners in China to address the need for more judges and labor law practitioners to be trained in the content of the country’s labor laws and in the advocacy skills needed to better represent workers’ claims in arbitration and court. Together with its partners, the ILRF has trained over 350 judges, arbitrators, lawyers, and employees of government legal aid centers and the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). Oftentimes, ILRF-sponsored courses have been trainees’ first exposure to formal education in labor law.

Chinese law schools have been the ILRF’s primary partners in this effort, but the organization has also worked with provincial and local level branches of the ACFTU and the Ministry of Justice’s legal aid centers. The trainings have been held in Anhui, Jiangsu, Shaanxi, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. The focus content-wise has been on difficult legal problems commonly faced by migrant workers, both in the provinces that send and that receive migrant labor.

The ILRF has also supported courses aimed at raising Chinese workers’ legal rights awareness. These classes have been held in neighborhood settings and have included health and safety and job skills training. Many workers have already applied the knowledge they have gained through their training to their daily lives, resolving workplace disputes through legal channels and winning compensation owed them for work injuries or unpaid wages.

Finally, starting in 2008, the ILRF has supported legal clinics that allow law students direct experience in representing workers. Under the guidance of university mentors, students are taking on cases as “citizen surrogates”—and analyzing their experiences in arbitration or court through lively discussions with their classmates. The purpose of these clinics is to instill a new generation of lawyers with a commitment to the public interest.

Read Chinese domestic media coverage of ILRF's work in China here.

Partner Profile:
Northwest University of Politics and Law

With the support of the ILRF, Xi’an’s Northwest University of Politics and Law (NUPL) has established a labor law clinic within the university’s School of Economic Law. The clinic breaks with traditional teaching methods in China by giving students the opportunity to learn labor law through representing workers in actual arbitration and courtroom cases. In-depth classroom discussions with classmates, professors and legal professionals help students to evaluate and re-evaluate the cases they represent. Simultaneously, the clinic provides workers with free representation and, through its labor law hotline and walk-in appointments, free advice on workplace problems.

NUPL runs its clinic according to the principles of “inquiring thinking, creative methods, serving workers and cultivating talent.” Though only recently established, the clinic is continuously searching for new ways to synthesize its different components—training, representation, and advice—while reaching out to different community stakeholders.


ILRF has organized discussions on Chinese labor issues.  Click here to view photos from the May 2010 panel on green jobs in China.  Images from an ILRF-National Labor College discussion on Wal-Mart workers in China are below.