'Little Bird' becomes a big help for migrants far and wide
Ten years ago, Wei Wei set up a telephone hotline to help migrant workers just like him. The 'Little Bird' hotline now has centres from Shenzhen to Shenyang and has received 170,000 calls from migrant workers.
Who were you before you set up the hotline?
I left my hometown for Beijing in 1996 with just 400 yuan in my pocket. After spending weeks attending job fairs, I could not find any decent job, since I was just a migrant worker without skills. I had labour jobs like being a coolie and washing cars. Over the next three years I changed jobs several times and could hardly make a living.
What happened to make you change and set up the hotline?
I felt helpless and frustrated those days. I felt there was no respect for people of our kind. Migrant workers contribute a lot to Beijing's development but were always a helpless minority group. I decided to go back home, since no one cared about me in the city. I shared my feelings with a friend one night in 1999 as I was preparing to leave the city. He asked me why migrant workers could not help ourselves. His words woke me up. Why could I not help my brother migrant workers?
How did the hotline come about?
I didn't know what to do first. In 1999, it was very sensitive in Beijing to be starting an organisation because of the crackdown on Falun Gong. So I applied for a telephone line and named it the 'Little Bird' hotline. No one knew about the hotline at first. I put an advertisement in a newspaper with free classified advertising. It said: 'I have a good idea for migrant workers and want to share it with you friends.'
Dozens of migrant workers called me that week. They all thought the hotline was a great idea, and we decided to set up a group to help each other.
People started calling for help to find a flat, a job or a free lawyer. We also went to nursing homes to help old people and orphans.
One or two newspapers heard about us and wrote stories about us. So more and more people began to know there was a free hotline to help migrant workers.
In 2000, a Beijing radio station invited me to host a night programme sharing stories about migrant workers and minority groups. The programme is still going and it has made the hotline even more popular.
How is the hotline now and how many people you had helped?
Now we have also set up office in Shenzhen and Shenyang. There have been 5,000 volunteers, such as college students and lawyers, offering advice and help for free.
So far 170,000 people have called us for help. We have helped 5,000 workers reclaim about 20 million yuan (HK$22.7 million) in unpaid wages.
What kinds of people call the hotline and how do you help them?
Most advice seekers are migrant workers in urban areas. They usually call looking for jobs, asking for back wages or just to share their stories with us.
We listen to them carefully and with patience and give them basic legal advice such as signing a contract before they are hired or asking for a monthly salary rather than being paid annually.
In some cases, we even go to the construction site or company with the media to uncover their back-pay facts.
Which case has impressed you most?
It was the first time I went to a company in Beijing on behalf of a migrant worker to get him his 3,000 yuan unpaid salary.
My legs shook when I questioned the boss. The boss asked us to sit down and have tea but had already called the police to evict us.
Luckily, when the police arrived and listened to our story they were on our side and pushed the boss to pay up.
It gave me encouragement, and now I am very experienced in reclaiming back pay.
What are your plans for the hotline?
I hope to set it up in more cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou, Dongguan , Nanjing and Hangzhou . Then migrant workers will have an intercity system to help one another.
I also want to set up an NGO. But under the current law, there's still a long way to go to fulfil my plan.
Wei Wei spoke to He Huifeng