Three donated computers, two barely-decorated rooms without central heating, the legal aid station is underfunded and often crowded with migrant workers.
In China's northwestern Xi'an city migrant workers can now get free legal assistance if they have problems. Many of the problems are about payment defaults and workplace injury compensation.
Running with a budget of less than 7,000 yuan per month (972 U.S. dollars), the Xi'an legal aid station is hailed as a "beacon" for migrant workers according to the local media which have tracked the station since its set-up in May 2007. It's a joint effort by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the All China Lawyers' Association.
During the last eight months, the legal aid station has received 432 call-ins and visits and provided legal aid in more than 120 cases, winning over 90 percent of the lawsuits.
"It's a good beginning," said Tong Lihua, the chief of Beijing legal aid center for migrant workers and a veteran lawyer in defending the rights of vulnerable groups such as juveniles and migrant workers.
The lawyers have a busy schedule - they hold down normal jobs and then must shuttle between places like construction sites, hospitals and judicial organs by bicycle in often freezing temperatures and harsh winds.
"They are real helpers, and as soon as they know the situation they take action," one migrant worker told a Xinhua reporter. He added that he did not believe it when his friend talked about the free-of-charge legal aid center in the city's east end.
Statistics showed that from 2005 to the first six months of 2007, legal aid organizations nationwide had helped 263,489 migrant workers, according to the Legal Daily.
A typical case is Mr. Zhang, who suffered a fractured pelvis after an eight-meter fall at work. It's an injury that keeps him from doing laboring in the future. He signed a small-sum, one-time compensation with the contractor who mercifully paid his hospital expenses.
After three major operations, Zhang found himself penniless and had to stay in sheltered accommodation for six months of recovery. Desperate Zhang then found the station that finally helped him win a 70,000 yuan compensation from his former employer, who previously had refused to give a penny.
The station lawyer's aid was invaluable, as Zhang had no education beyond primary school and felt threatened by the procedures and terminology of the law.
This is just one drop in the ocean of migrant workers' problems. Work logs show records of industrial injuries such as fractures, brain damage, amputation and paralysis, and the wage arrears that too often happen in the construction and manufacturing sectors.
China has a population of almost 200 million migrant workers who seek a better life off the farm. Like other second tier cities in China, Xi'an, an ancient city famed for its terracotta soldiers, is in the midst of an enormous building boom. Toting their bedrolls from work site to work site, migrant workers earn about 800 yuan a month.
"They often got paid later or not at all," said Xi'an legal aid station lawyer Zhao Bin. Instead of contracts, their jobs rely on word of mouth from sub-contract bosses who sometimes refuse to keep their promises.
The station recently helped 41 construction workers fight to collect about 90,000 yuan, their half year earnings last year. "The work is tougher as they were employed indirectly through sub-contractors or, even worse, via oral promises," said Zhao.
"Passion and confidence is what I find in those lawyers," said Alessandra Tisot, UNDP's senior deputy representative, told Xinhua during a visit to the station.
The Xi'an legal station is one of 15 around the country. The half-million yuan project is funded by the Belgian Embassy and started in February 2007, aiming to establish a nationwide network of lawyers to help migrant workers.
Tong also believes the one-year foreign aid is "timely and important". He added that the station still has three to five years to go before it can run on its own, figuring out a system to finance itself.
"The hardship is worth it," said Zhou Wei, one of the station lawyers. He said that migrant workers are in an urgent need of legal services as they often work in the hazardous open sites, get no practical protection and receive no medical support when the injuries occur. (One U.S. dollar equals about 7.2 yuan)
(Xinhua News Agency February 5, 2008)