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Chinese Activist Urges Officials to Leave Labor Disputes to Courts - 2003-11-11

A prominent Chinese labor activist says Chinese officials should not get involved in labor disputes regarding workers' compensation, but should allow workers to take bankrupt state-run companies and their managers to court instead.

Speaking in Hong Kong, labor-rights activist Han Dongfang said local governments in China should facilitate workers' grievances being settled in court, rather than allowing them to become a political issue.

Mr. Han says local officials often make it difficult for lawyers to provide legal assistance to the millions of unemployed workers seeking compensation for layoffs.

He says the workers, effectively barred from the courts, are likely to create unrest and instability, turning a legal matter into a political issue.

"We believe that if you give people legal advice, [you can] make them feel more comfortable," he explained.

While slamming Chinese officials for ignoring breaches of basic labor rights, Mr. Han says the new leadership in Beijing has provided a glimmer of hope.

He pointed to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who earlier this year visited workers in a coal mine, and who acknowledged the plight of workers in some of China's bankrupt and inefficient state-owned enterprises. He said the actions of Mr. Wen and President Hu Jintao were a marked change from those of their predecessors.

"We can see obviously after these two people, Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao, we saw that they behave differently than [Former President] Jiang Zemin and [former Prime Minister] Zhu Rongzhi…," said Mr. Han.

Mr. Han, a former railway worker, organized China's first independent labor union. He was arrested during the 1989 crackdown on student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, which ended in bloodshed.

Almost two years later, Mr. Han was released from prison and sent to the United States for medical treatment. His attempt to return to China failed, and he settled in Hong Kong, where he helped found the China Labor Bulletin, highlighting the situation of workers in China.

The publication's director, Robin Munro, says Mr. Han's aim now is to show China's leaders that allowing workers' claims to reach court is not likely to lead to social instability.

"Let us look at labor relations and labor disputes as something between the workforce and factory management and factory owners," said Mr. Munro. "It is not something the government should be involved in, it should not be politicized. The trade union movement is not a political phenomenon, it is a struggle for workers' rights."

But Mr. Han is still regarded as a dissident and a threat by China's leadership.