Yiwu is a city of more than 1.7 million people and has the largest commodity market in the country. Rural migrant workers account for more than 70 percent of the total workers. The vast majority of the more than 700,000 migrants are engaged in producing commodities in labor-intensive and non-state-owned enterprises. Due to the number and type of enterprises, labor relations are very complex and infringements on labor rights are frequent.
Before 1999, there were about 10,000 labor disputes per year and there were massive appeals to higher authorities for help. In addition, worker suicide and murder of bosses was increasing in frequency. Due to high costs and the lack of channels for rights-defense, a great number of labor disputes were not resolved in a proper and timely manner. However, beginning in May 1999, the Trade Union of Yiwu has given top priority to defending workers' rights. By collaborating with the mass media, colleges, law firms, labor and judicial departments, and even trade unions in other cities, rights-defense in Yiwu has improved gradually. During the period from December 2004 to October 2007, the rights-defense center of Yiwu Trade Union accepted a total of 1,416 complaints, 1,302 of which were resolved successfully through mediation. The number of visitors to the center totaled 3,198.
The innovation of rights-defense in Yiwu has five characteristics. First, the Trade Union invited leaders from the local Communist Party of China (CPC) and government departments to act as part-time rights-defense consultants. Second, in October 2000, the Yiwu Municipal Bureau of Civil Affairs established the Center for Worker Rights-Defense. The Center is staffed by full-time rights-defenders and volunteer lawyers. Third, stakeholders, including trade unions and government agencies financed the Rights-Defense function of the Center. Fourth, the Trade Union established a comprehensive cross-regional network in collaboration with the Kaihua in Zhejiang Province, Fushun in Liaoning Province, Chengdu in Sichuan Province, and Yiyang in Jiangxi Province. In addition, Rights-Defense Centers and labor dispute mediation commissions were established in many towns, sub-districts, and enterprises. The information network for rights-defense connects governments through a hot-line that facilitates interaction among departments to ensure that various inquiries and complaints are handled properly and promptly. Fifth, a great number of stakeholders are involved in labor rights-defense. Trade unions collaborate with government agencies such as public security, legal representation, people's courts, and justice bureaus. Even law firms, mass media, and colleges defend workers' rights.
Reform in rights-defense in Yiwu has produced many positive outcomes. Since adoption of the reform, labor relations are becoming more and more harmonious. By collaborating with trade unions, the government has demonstrated it is proactive in responding to social conflicts. Criminal cases and production accidents have been reduced. More than 94 percent of the local residents are satisfied with the improvement. The reform has also improved the climate for investment and economic growth. Since the legitimate rights and interests of rural migrant workers are now better protected, there has been a sharp decrease in labor disputes and public security cases and businesses are expanding their presence in Yiwu.
Protection of workers' interests, especially those of rural migrant workers, has created incentives for workers to not only make a living, but to plan a career. Workers have undergone a role-transformation from conventional workers to modern industrial workers. Based on these improvements, an increasing number of migrant workers have chosen to settle in Yiwu. Also, improved governance has assisted them in creating a more stable social environment. Yiwu City has taken the lead in protecting workers' rights and provides a model for other cities and districts that face similar rights issues. In fact, following the conference on rights-defense held in Yiwu City in September 2005, the "Yiwu Model" soon spread to other regions.