Jody Michael

Zhang Zhiru is a leading member of the “barefoot lawyers,” China’s corps of self-taught, unlicensed “citizen representatives” who first appeared decades ago as self-taught rural paralegals helping villagers with no access to real lawyers. More recently, they have appeared in the major industrial centres, which are teeming with workers who have migrated from regions across the nation and often are treated as second-class citizens.

People like Mr. Zhang shouldn’t be necessary. On paper, China has stringent labour laws and still venerates the man who called on the workers of the world to unite. Here, unlike most countries, May Day, created in 1889 – exactly 100 years before the crackdown in Tiananmen Square – to advance the eight-hour work day championed by Karl Marx – remains a major national holiday.

But those laws are rarely enforced, and organized labour in the People’s Republic amounts to just one official body: the All China Federation of Trade Unions, which represents an estimated 250 million workers but, in a country obsessed with its economic development, traditionally sides with management.

As a result, a barefoot lawyer is the only real hope for many workers when factory bosses deny them back pay or compensation for work-related injuries. And it can be a thankless job. Mr. Zhang charges no fees for his services, supporting his wife and infant daughter by working part-time as a paralegal at a law firm.