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Difference Maker

A prosperous lawyer aids China's migrant workers

Liu Pifeng, the wealthy founder of a law firm, spends part of his time defending the rights of China's poorest: migrant workers. His ultimate goal is to fix China's faulty legal system.

By / staff writer / June 28, 2010

Liu Pifeng (l.) counsels a migrant worker who was injured in a work-site accident. The free legal-aid clinic run by the Jinan, China, lawyer has also helped thousands of migrant workers recover some $753,000 in unpaid wages.

Peter Ford/The Christian Science Monitor

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Jinan, China

Liu Pifeng is a wealthy man. The founder of a prosperous corporate law firm in this provincial capital, he drives the sort of black Chrysler sedan that proclaims personal success in China.

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He does not, however, trouble to conceal his humble origins. In conversation he is apt to hike his suit trousers way up, following a summertime habit among Chinese working men seeking to cool their calves. And he attributes his squat physique to his childhood diet.

"I come from a peasant family," Mr. Liu explains. "I grew up eating sweet potatoes, and now I look like one."

His peasant origins have left another lasting influence, he says: sympathy for "ordinary people at the bottom of society who are so helpless." And that was what motivated him to devote part of his law practice to a free legal-aid clinic for migrant workers.

There are 210 million such workers in China who have left their farms to build the roads, railways, and cities that have spurred this country's breakneck economic growth and to work in the factories that have sprung up in their wake.

Chinese law, though, makes them second-class citizens – denied the social welfare benefits their urban cousins enjoy – and employers routinely exploit them.

In May, 19-year-old migrant worker Li Hai threw himself to his death from the roof of a building at electronics manufacturer Foxconn, which makes Apple's iPad tablet computers, in the southern boom town of Shenzhen. He was the ninth company employee to kill himself this year.

"It's a constant problem," says Liu, explaining why he chose to help migrant workers rather than victims of China's myriad other social injustices. "That means we can work on it systematically."

Liu did not always think like this. When he founded his law firm in 1999, he recalls, "I just wanted to grow my business as much as possible and to make it as successful as possible. Those were my only ambitions."

But some of the cases he came across, including blatant pressure from local government officials on judges to rule in their favor in cases brought by aggrieved citizens, made him ponder the injustices of a society where the gap between rich and poor was widening.

"I was very unhappy with a lot of policies, but I learned that being unhappy doesn't help, complaining doesn't help," Liu says. "I had to work on real issues, and start with little things."

So in 2002 Liu rented the floor above his law offices in a tower block on Jinan's main street, set up a ping-pong table in the new legal-aid clinic's waiting room, began distributing fliers and booklets explaining migrant workers' rights at factory gates and construction sites – and then waited for customers.

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