Rights Protection Little Bird in Beijing
Reporter GaoXin, Legal Weekly
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Even though Wei Wei has lived in Beijing for 16 years he still sleeps on a sofa, but this doesn't affect his image in the eyes of migrant workers who consider him a hero.
Defending migrant workers’ rights is the Wei Wei’s life’s work. In 1999, he established Little Bird and worked day and night to offer free rights protection services to migrant workers.
June 6th of this year will be Little Bird’s 14th birthday. By this January, Little Bird’s Beijing office has answered more than 134, 000 calls for help and reclaimed RMB130 million in back pay for migrant workers.
As the founder of Little Bird, Wei Wei started from nothing and devoted himself wholeheartedly to his causes. He has suffered from poverty, hopelessness, and desperation at times. However, he never gives up or backs down from the realities of his work. He does what he believes to be right, ignoring other’s doubts.
Now, Little Bird is not only able to sustain and help more people in need, but has also actively launched a new event: a survey among a specific group through questionnaires.
Wage Arrears is Not the Only Problem Confronting the Migrant Workers
On the morning of May 17th, thirty-three sweat-soaked migrant workers waited at the door of Little Bird’s office.
The office is located in the third basement floor of an office building in the central area of China’s capital. On the ground level is the crowded Wangfujing Street.
Wei Wei and his colleagues received those migrant workers and learned that the reason why they turned to Little Bird for help was that their boss didn’t pay their salaries.
With years of experience, Wei Wei explained some related legal knowledge to the workers and explained why they were under this kind of situation.
“Many construction workers can’t sign a labor contract. For those who do sign the contract, a copy of the contract is rarely in the possession of the workers. Without a contract in hand, it is difficult to make a legal case to defend the rights of the workers. It is not possible for us to say anything to the labor department and the court of justice without evidence.” Wei Wei said to the reporter from Legal Weekly.
Although it is difficult, Little Bird still telephoned the contractor and the manager of the construction project. Unfortunately, the mediation via telephone failed. Wei Wei said: “We have to mediate on site.”
For years, construction workers have constituted large part of the calls and visits made at Little Bird. Early on, Wei Wei started to pay attention to construction workers.
Conservative estimates suggest that there are 30 million construction workers in China, and that they have contributed a lot to China’s urban development. However, Wei Wei found that the construction workers’ rights and interests are very vulnerable.
In October of last year, JiaYongzhi, a construction worker, was hit by a steel bar that fell from a high building when he was working on a construction site in Shenzhen. The steel bar went 17 centimeters through his armpit, cutting one rib. Three months earlier, on July 21st, 2012 when Beijing was flooded with rain, killing 77 people,he and another 151 migrant workers had saved 182 people who were trapped on the Beijing-HongKong-Macao Expressway.
After the accident, JiaYongzhi was admitted to a hospital for chest pain and dizziness. But the construction company forced him to leave the hospital as “his hospital stay cost several thousand yuan in only a couple of days.”However, his doctor clearly stated that taking consideration of his situation, Mr. Jia couldn’t yet safely leave the hospital.
Upon hearing this, Wei Wei visited JiaYongzhi in the hospital with a volunteer lawyer. Mr. Jia was holding the T-shirt awarded to him for his courageous action in saving people trapped in the flood on July 21st and said in tears: “Xiao Cui (the host from Central Television) said that we were conscientious people when he treated us a dinner.How can my boss be so heartless and drive me out of the hospital even though I’m still hurt? ”
Wei Wei hoped that he could help him, but he and the lawyer knew that it was necessary to make clear whether the company had bought insurance for him. However, the company was reluctant to respond.
Finally, JiaYongzhi recovered in the hospital under the media’s attention, but the result was still far from ideal.
“How can we really help workers if we have to protect them one by one? What is the construction workers’ living situation like? ”These questions came to his mind.
In April of this year, Wei Wei finally took the first step to investigate construction workers’ living situations and rights protection conditions. Little Bird recruited university student volunteers in eight cities to help finish the questionnaire among 10,000 construction workers.
Wei Wei selected a theme for this investigation—“Taking Action for You.”
On the questionnaire, there is a question about how often the workers can afford meat. Many people said only once a month.
Little Bird has now received 1000 of the questionnaires.While this is only one-tenth of the total, they suddenly affected Wei Wei’s outlook.
“Before doing the investigation, I thought that I knew a lot about the group. But after the field investigation, I found that the problems don’t end at unpaid salaries. For many construction workers, even a basic living standard can’t be guaranteed. As construction workers’ working environmentsare isolated from the outside, they can’t integrate into urban life; some of the workers even don’t know who the current president of China is.”
The questionnaires illuminated many of the problems migrant workers face, including no access to public information, no social insurance, no health exams, no labor contracts, lack of facilities for hygiene, extended periods away from their families, high divorce rates, etc., which has also been revealed to the student volunteers who knew little about this community.
Wei Wei has his own purpose in recruiting university students: “I would also like to let these university students pay attention to the situations construction workers face.”
Wei Wei was also not certain about when the 10,000 questionnaires could be collected, because it is challenging to get the questionnaires back from the workers.“It is very hard to get into the construction site to do the questionnaire, and then we can only find out when the workers have a day off and then wait for them where they have dinner.”
The Birth of Little Bird
Wei Wei studied Chinese medicine. After working in his father’s clinic for a while, he left his hometown to sell Chinese medicine in another province. He came to Beijing in 1997 when his business failed. He did many jobs and rescued migrant workers who were forced to work in an illegal company. After two years as a migrant worker, Wei Wei achieved nothing and decided to leave Beijing for home. He had a farewell dinner with an old friend, who said: “Even those graduated university students couldn’t achieve anything for years in Beijing and so many of them just left for home, let alone you, a migrant worker without any skills or knowledge.” Those words touched Wei Wei and he thought deeply about his role in society that night. Finally he realized that the reason why migrant workers achieve nothing in a city is that they have lost all of the resources given by society. Without any support from their friends or relatives, they are helpless and lonely in unfamiliar cities. How wonderful would it be if there was a platform for migrant workers to help each other? Thinking about this, he started to prepare such platform. As to the name of Little Bird, Wei Wei chose it because Wei Wei loves a song by a Taiwanese singer Zhao Chuan, “I am a Little Bird.”Migrant workers are just like the lonely, helpless and migratory little birds mentioned in the song.
The Little Bird Mutual-Aid Hotline was founded on June 6th, 1999. The hotline helped numerous people, listening to their unfair treatment they have encountered and helping them to reclaim their owed wages.
Facing many difficulties in terms of developing Little Bird, Wei Wei never thinks about giving up. He knew early on that in order to deal with these difficulties, he has to be persistent and also be able to take advantage of social forces. Besides his active communication with the government, Wei Wei cooperated with the Beijing Radio Corporation in presenting a radio program in which the migrant workers can have a larger say. In September of 2004, the Justice Bureau of Dongcheng District (Beijing) authorized Little Bird to establish the Little Bird People’s Mediation Committee, which is the first mediation committee to serve migrant workers. From then on, Little Bird has been able to go out of the office and directly and efficiently negotiate with the employers to reclaim workers’ salary. Wei Wei calls it a “zero-cost” rights protection mode.
At the same time, Wei Wei also keeps active contact with the media. Little Bird’s media strategy has come from years of experience. As its social credibility has grown, Little Bird received support from foundations, universities and colleges. Nowadays, Little Bird continues to thrive and will always be there to bring warmth and assistance to migrant workers in need.