An unfolding national scandal on the large-scale abuse of child labourers in the brick kiln industry raises questions on the adequacy of planned labour laws that are supposed to take on sweatshops and protect workers' rights.
The first signs of the scandal surfaced early June when local newspapers carried a staggering photograph of a group of migrant workers freed after more than a year of slave labour in a brick kiln in central China.
By the standards of the Chinese state-sanctioned press, which frowns on sensationalism, the photograph was more than shocking -- it showed people who were bruised, wounded and burnt, with clear signs of malnutrition and dazed expressions of disbelief at their sudden freedom.
Yet, the story accompanying the photograph was even more astounding in a country where the ruling Communist Party was swept to power for its pledges to create a workers' paradise.
The 32 migrants had been duped into believing that they were being offered paid jobs, but once inside the brickworks in the Caosheng village of Shanxi province they were forced to work under the watch of guards and dogs for 18 hours a day. None received any money for the whole time of their enslavement and they survived only on water and steamed rolls of bread.
When a police raid freed the migrants late last month it was discovered that one man had been beaten to death with a hammer. Among the others, eight were so traumatised that they could only remember their names. All had burns on their hands and bodies from having to carry the hot bricks without protection. Their clothes had been reduced to rags and "the grime on their bodies was so thick it could be scraped off with a knife," said the report in the Shanxi Evening News.
The brick kiln was operated by a foreman identified as Heng Tinghan, but owned by the son of the local Communist Party chief. According to local villagers, the brickworks were illegal but still allowed to operate with the tacit agreement of the local police and officials because the party boss's son owned them.
The extraordinary revelations were followed by an open letter circulated on Chinese Internet fora, alleging that at least 1,000 children aged between eight and 16 years have been enslaved in the illegal brick kilns in Shanxi province.
The letter, signed by 400 fathers from the central province of Henan, pleaded for help in their self-organised campaign to rescue the kidnapped children. It said the children had been kidnapped or forced into cars in urban Henan centres such as the capital Zhengzhou, then sold to factory bosses for about 500 yuan (65 US dollars) each.
Henan borders Shanxi province whose rugged terrain was once used by Mao Zedong's military strategists to hide thousands of factories churning out arms and ammunition in the late 1960s. Many of these caves now house illegal brick kilns, according to Henan fathers, where kidnapped children and migrants worked in horrific conditions.
"The places those children lived in were worse than dog kennels," Chai Wei, a Henan father who had managed to enter several dozen brickworks in search for his missing son, told the ‘Xinjingbao' newspaper. "There were no beds -- they slept on wooden planks, and the walls were covered in excrement. We were scared stiff by what we saw."
Chai had spearheaded the rescue efforts of nearly one hundred parents who pooled money to hire a car and go around the brickworks in Shanxi. Their search had managed to salvage around 100 children, Chai said, but there were hundreds more. His 17-year-old son, who disappeared from Zhengzhou in April, has not been found yet.
"We got no help whatsoever from the local police," Chai complained bitterly. "Many of the local police are close to the kilns' owners and would warn them ahead if a search party was coming. We learned not to rely on them (the police) but to tour the kilns one by one ourselves."
The discovery of provincial webs of slave labour was made public just as China is preparing to adopt a new labour law which has been deliberated by legislators for many months. The new law aims to crack down on sweatshops and workers' abuses by giving state-controlled unions real power for the first time since Beijing introduced market reforms in the 1980s.
Over the last ten years China's economy has been growing at double-digit rate thanks to the labour of millions of migrant workers churning out goods for export in exchange for low wages. But, as the economy boomed labour disputes multiplied. More and more workers have gone to court or taken to the streets to protest poor working conditions and overdue pay.
The government has described the new legislation as a fresh attempt to improve worker protection and stop labour abuses. But it is not clear how effective it would be in this vast country where many local officials tend to ignore or skirt directives from the central government.
Workers' advocates argue that enforcement powers would be improved only if Beijing allows independent labour unions.
"With no supervision or advocacy from the collective power of labour, laws and central government resolutions will not be respected or administered," says Cai Chongguo, labour rights expert with the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin.
After all, China already has a labour law and a law on protection of minors, but neither could prevent the forced labour scandal in Shanxi, noted a signed commentary by the Xinhua News Agency on Sunday.
"The reason why such flagrant crimes were committed in the brick kilns of Shanxi is that businessmen and local officials worked hand-in-glove," the commentary said.
The ‘China Youth Daily' went even further, calling the uncovered slavery a "shocking disgrace", exposing officials' dereliction of duty. "When a law is massively undercut in its implementation so that it becomes a worthless piece of paper, then it's necessary to rethink the law itself,'' the paper said.
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