Sheltering Migrant Workers from the Storm

Sheltering Migrant Workers
A migrant worker receives reimbursement of unpaid wages at a legal aid work station in Beijing following a successful case.

Thirty year old Xiang Jianming has been painting walls at a construction site in Beijing for six months. “I need the money to support the education of my two daughters,” he explains. “I would lose face if I went home empty-handed.” Mr. Xiang, originally from southern China, is just one of the estimated 150 to 200 million migrant workers who have left their homes for the big cities in search of higher income employment.

Over the past two decades, China’s commercial boom and socio-economic reforms have seen millions of rural residents and local farmers pour into cities. According to a report released by McKinsey in 2009, between 2005 and 2025, there will be over 350 million migrant workers flooding into cities. In numbers greater than the combined population of the United Kingdom, France and Australia, these rural workers account for the vast majority of employees in China’s manufacturing, coal and construction sectors. According to a conservative estimate from UNESCO and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, migrants have contributed 16 percent of gross domestic product over the last 20 years.

Living for years at a time in large coastal cities, China’s migrant workers have built the country’s skyscrapers and assembled its exports, sending hard earned income to their families back home in the less developed inland provinces. But despite their contribution to China’s development, migrant workers still face massive challenges in accessing basic social services, including healthcare and educational opportunities for their children. They frequently fall victim to work place exploitation and abuse, including delayed or even non-payment of wages, lack of compensation for injury and dangerous working conditions.

Since most migrant workers do not have the legal knowledge or the financial and social resources to seek judicial redress by themselves, they often fail to protect their rights. Despite increasing government interventions and the efforts of many non-governmental organisations to address this situation, the violation of migrant workers’ rights is still pervasive.


  • "China’s migrant workers have built the country’s skyscrapers and assembled its exports, but despite their contribution to China’s development, they still face massive challenges in accessing basic social services."

Working alongside the Belgium Government and the All China Lawyers Association (ACLA), a non-governmental organisation sponsored by the Ministry of Justice, UNDP has helped to provide professional and free legal aid to migrant workers. Through this one-year project, undertaken in 2007, non-governmental approaches towards institutionalising legal aid for migrant workers, has been explored through a legal aid model developed by the ACLA.

Using the ACLA’s legal aid office in Beijing as an example, UNDP helped to set up a network of 15 ACLA work stations to provide free legal aid to migrant workers in 14 provinces. Having brought together a group of pro bono lawyers, over 1.9 million yuan (equivalent to US$29.2 thousand) in defaulted wages and other unpaid compensation has been repaid to migrant workers. Education sessions for migrant workers on how to protect their legal interests and professional training to help lawyers understand migrant workers’ needs have been conducted and public awareness of labour rights has been enhanced.

In all, this project has fostered the protection of migrants’ rights, not only for the 80,000 direct beneficiaries of this project, but also for their families, peers, local governments and the broader communities in which they live.

Based on the project’s experiences in handling legal aid cases, UNDP has undertaken further policy research and consultations with the ACLA on how to expand, improve and institutionalise the provision of affordable legal aid to migrant workers and other vulnerable groups. This has been shared with relevant Chinese government ministries and includes recommendations relating to the legitimacy and role of civic organisations in providing legal aid services and in consulting migrant workers during regulatory reforms.

Following the success of this project and these consultations, the ACLA is now working to extend its network of free legal aid centres to all provincial capitals and throughout many of China’s mid-sized cities. This will result in an additional 20 legal aid centres. Meanwhile, UNDP continues to work alongside the ACLA to assist the government in its efforts to promote legal reform and to strengthen civil society partners’ abilities to administer legal aid to those most in need.

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