SHENZHEN/WANZHOU, China (Reuters) - Qi Yunhui didn't even graduate from middle school, but on a recent afternoon he addressed the Shenzhen Intermediate People's Court with the confidence of a seasoned litigator.
When he came to Shenzhen in 2002, the fast talking native of China's central province of Hubei worked in a leather shoe factory. Now, he is part of a new and growing breed of "citizens' agents," former workers offering cheap legal aid to fellow migrants involved in labor disputes.
In the past five years or so, these self-taught "barefoot" labor lawyers have proliferated, filling an important niche in a country where migrant workers are increasingly caught in a dilemma -- they are encouraged by the leadership to know their rights, but lack effective, efficient channels to protect them.
"We want to encourage people to go to court," Qi, 30, said over dinner with five toy factory workers he was representing in a case over unpaid overtime.
China's 150 million internal migrants, mostly working for low wages in export processing factories or in construction, have helped write the country's economic success story.
But their rights have been consistently sidelined, and tales of illegally low pay, abusive factory conditions and a litany of contract violations are commonplace.
Wary of unrest, China's leaders have passed a series of laws designed to strengthen workers' status. This January, a new labor contract law took effect and a dispute arbitration law will come into force in May.
Premier Wen Jiabao has personally campaigned to curb the problem of managers withholding pay, a situation many migrants say has improved significantly during the five years of his tenure.
But change is slower to come at local levels, where officials are pre-occupied with finding -- and keeping -- investment.
"Local governments seek economic benefits alone. They think protecting the boss is protecting their rice bowl, but it's the workers who pay the price of sacrificing their health and lives," said Zhou Litai, a self-taught lawyer who went a step beyond "citizens' agents" like Qi by taking the national exams to receive his lawyers' license.
Businesses sometimes bristle, too.
In Shenzhen late last year, two knife-wielding assailants attacked campaigner Huang Qingnan, whose Dagongzhe Migrant Worker Centre had been offering education on the labor contract law. Huang was in hospital for weeks with deep wounds in his leg.
This week, his organization said police had arrested a factory landlord who they said was behind the attack because he thought Huang was to blame for his company's bankruptcy.
Qi says men have come to his office to threaten him and he's received several menacing phone calls.
The factory-studded Pearl River Delta, an engine of economic growth, now has hundreds of "citizens' agents," Qi estimates, and nationwide there are several thousand. Most, like Qi, learned the law on their own through personal quests to get back pay.
The business model is simple. While most lawyers demand retainers and charge high fees, "citizens' agents" work for a modest contingency, which means it costs little for workers to initiate proceedings.
Lawyer Zhou operates that way, too, taking a cut of the compensation awarded if he wins a case.
In the coastal areas, like Shenzhen, where factories are clustered together, word of mouth spreads quickest and the rights consciousness among workers is highest, experts say.
But all over the country, knowledge of rights -- and a willingness to go to the courts to defend them -- is on the rise.
Zhou, 51, who was born into a peasant family in Kaixian, now a rural part of western Chongqing, became interested in the law during his own stint as a migrant worker at a brick kiln, after the kiln's manager failed to pay agreed wages.
In his more than 20 years as a lawyer, his offices have handled some 8,000 migrant worker cases, most of them over compensation claims for workplace injuries or unpaid wages.
A glance outside the window of his office in the southwestern city of Wanzhou, perched high over the Yangzte River and across the road from the local courts, offers a microcosm of the social dislocation across China that in part accounts for its vast army of migrant workers.
Farmers still till vegetables and rice paddies in plots wedged between buildings rapidly rising above the river. Patches of green look tiny beneath construction cranes.
To meet their needs, as the number of citizens' agents rises, trained lawyers, too, are turning their attention toward the once neglected area of labor law.
The United Nations Development Programme, with funding from the Belgian government, started a pilot program last year with the All-China Lawyers' Association to fund legal aid for migrant workers in 15 provinces.
The Beijing branch alone has handled some 4,000 cases in the past year and about 30,000 workers have contacted the clinic.
Despite the low pay-back for law firms handling these cases, those involved say it has been easy to attract lawyers.
"They see it as a way of engaging in social transformation," said Alessandra Tisot, the UNDP's Senior Deputy Resident Representative in Beijing.
"It's also a way to get training and experience in labor law, which is traditionally a sector that's been missing in Chinese law," she said.
Pressure is mounting on the legal system, in part because workers in China are deprived of a key channel elsewhere for resolving labor disputes: independent unions, which are banned by the ruling Communist Party.
Critics say the official, state-backed All-China Federation of Trade Unions does almost nothing to protect workers' rights.
The options, therefore, are limited and the need for legal support is rising, said Han Dongfang, whose Hong Kong-based China labor Bulletin offers funding and support to migrant laborers involved in legal disputes.
"But at the same time, what is the ultimate solution? It is preventing these violations," said Han. "This is a great waste of judiciary resources. There's no need for these cases."
His organization estimates that the number of labor dispute cases China's courts have handled rose about four-fold in the decade to 2004, reaching nearly 115,000.
From Han's perspective, the official union must realign its priorities to side with workers rather than trying to protect the investment gravy train. Zhou, the lawyer, agrees that the union is "only for show."
Some expect a flood of cases after the new arbitration law takes effect in May making it easier to file labor suits.
With momentum building, and national leaders caught between wanting to placate workers and protect their own hold on power, crusaders like Zhou and Qi face obstacles.
Zhou says local governments have at times interfered with the courts, causing him to lose cases.
In Shenzhen, Qi says he and others won so many cases that the local court in Bao'an, a district of Shenzhen where some 5 million migrants work, decided to ban "citizens' agents" from representing workers there.
"That's illegal," said the indefatigable Qi, who, with others, sent a letter to Premier Wen to complain.
Even though enforcement is patchy and the government sends mixed signals, the band of citizens' agents involved in the legal aid campaign is growing and their legal know-how is expanding.
"It's difficult to put the spirit back in the bottle," said Andreas Lauffs, an expert in Chinese employment law at Baker & McKenzie.
Editing by Megan Goldin