They toiled for 17 days in the sub-zero temperatures of Urumqi in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, but Zhang Huihua and his team of lawyers drew strength from the results of their investigations.
"It has been a freezing endeavor, but we have secured some heartwarming results," the lawyer said of Urumqi's -20 C temperatures after returning to Xinyang in Henan Province on Thursday.
Leading a team of six lawyers, Zhang, who is also deputy director of the Xinyang judicial affairs bureau, was on a mission to seek redress for tens of thousands of Xinyang migrant workers seeking defaulted wage payments.
After rounds of negotiations based on the findings of their investigations, the team of lawyers helped about 300 migrant workers win back 6 million yuan ($835,000) in 17 days.
"The work is far from done, but it's the start of a new beginning," Zhang said.
He said his team has found a new approach to helping the workers.
They have moved away from the conventional method, which sees migrant workers asking for back pay individually from the legal aid office, he said.
"After preliminary investigations, we found that lots of the companies that owed pay to workers were State-run, which have clear accounting records," he said.
Most of the debts stemmed from incomplete labor contracts and unsettled or delayed payments, Zhang said.
After rounds of meetings with legal aid offices affiliated to the Xinjiang Production and Construction Group, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region and Urumqi, Zhang's team endorsed a memo with its Xinjiang counterparts to resolve the problem.
Zhang said they have some way to go. It is estimated more than 100,000 laborers have been working on construction sites in Xinjiang since the 1980s.
"A report by the Xinyang government said that default pay to the workers was about 80 million yuan," he said.
Many of the construction workers are said to be concentrated in the Shihezi and Karamay areas.
Zheng Yongjun, a lawyer on Zhang's team, summarized the work of the mission as "a double insurance for success, by incorporating legal muscle with government help".
(China Daily January 29, 2008)