Getting Paid: Processing the Labor Disputes of China's Migrant Workers

70 Pages Posted: 16 May 2008 Last revised: 2 Oct 2016

See all articles by Aaron Halegua

Aaron Halegua

New York University School of Law; Harvard Law School

Date Written: 2008


Many of China's 150 million migrant workers travel from their rural homes to labor in the cities each year only to have their wages withheld by their employer. This phenomenon has led to riots, protests and violence by frustrated migrants. Therefore, finding a better means for resolving these wage disputes is crucial to preserving China's social stability. This article examines the various paths that migrants can take to get this money back. It argues that despite government attention to this problem, the formal dispute resolution system of arbitration and court tribunals has failed these workers because it is both inaccessible to them and ineffective at resolving their disputes. Instead, informal mediation is a far more suitable and effective means of inducing employers to pay the wages owed to the workers. Moreover, a case study of the organization Little Bird reveals how NGOs may be more successful at mediating these disputes than are government officials. This article is based on over two years of fieldwork in China, which includes countless interviews of the actors involved in the labor dispute resolution system, a review of internal government reports, Chinese laws and regulations, media reports, official handbooks and scholarly articles, as well as the observation of several labor arbitrations and mediations. In concluding, the article considers the options for reforming the China's labor dispute resolution system, the significance of the 2007 Labor Dispute Mediation and Arbitration Law, and the implications of this paper's findings on the rule of law and social stability in China.

Keywords: China, labor, migrant workers, mediation, law, law and society, rule of law, ADR, dispute resolution, discrimination

JEL Classification: F00, J30, J52, J61, R23, K31, K41, K33

Suggested Citation

Halegua, Aaron, Getting Paid: Processing the Labor Disputes of China's Migrant Workers (2008). Berkeley Journal of International Law (BJIL), Vol. 26, No. 1, 2008, Available at SSRN: or

Aaron Halegua (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States

Harvard Law School ( email )

Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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