Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Reports indicate that workers in kilns were treated worse than slaves, forced to handle hot bricks, beaten if they did not work as expected, and reportedly even buried alive to remove the bodies. After years of complaints by families, some 35,000 police agents in Henan Province raided some 7,500 brick kilns and in four days freed 219 people, including 29 children, from slavery, arresting 120 owners and “guards”. In the Xinxiang area alone, north of Zhengzhou, police raided 20 brick kilns on Saturday and rescued 23 people, including 16 children.
All the victims have the same story to tell: enticed with promises of a good job, they were beaten upon arrival, starved and forced to work 14-16 hours a day without pay. In one case some of the rescued labourers said that guards badly beat a labourer and then buried him alive to hide the body.
A week ago 31 people were rescued from a kiln in Caosheng village, five suspects were detained. Its owner, Wang Bingbing, is the son of the village chief.
The kiln, located across from his father’s house, was guarded by a taskmaster and dogs. Workers were forced to work 15 to 16 hours per day, and finish their meals of steamed bread and water within 15 minutes. In the freezing cold of winter, they were forced to sleep on the ground in a darkroom without a heating system.
According to mainland media, at least a thousand children, the youngest only 8, disappeared near train or bus stations in Henan and were sold to work in the north-western province of Shanxi or in Henan itself.
Making matters worse is the fact that there was nothing secret about the problem. Those who bought the bricks could not but see the hapless victims.
Some of the slave labourers managed to escape and report what had happened to them to the police. However, all the available evidence suggests that the authorities did nothing, except put the escapees on a train bound for home.
In an open letter published on the Tyania Club, one of China’s main online discussion groups, 400 men from Henan made an appeal for help in their bid to rescue their children from brickworks in the mountains of Shanxi where they had been taken after being abducted. They said they freed about 40 children and that police threatened them instead of helping them.
Yang Aizhi, a 46-year-old mother, has also been searching for her 16-year-old son. She went to more than 100 kilns in Shanxi and discovered that "most kilns were forcing children to do hard labour.” She and other parents told their story to a TV station in Zhengzhou in early May.
Qin Yuhai, deputy governor and police chief of Henan, said “we must do everything we can to fight human trafficking and rescue those being held captive.”
Senior government leaders, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, said they were shocked by the "horrific" stories and instructed the relevant departments and local authorities to investigate.
However, child labour remains widespread in China and Beijing has not yet ratified the International Labour Organisation's Convention on Forced Labour or the Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labour.
Under China’s laws migrant workers are often denied the right to register as residents in the places where they work, which favours widespread illegality and makes it easier for people to disappear.
After Playfair, an alliance of world trade unions, released a report this weak about Olympic merchandise being manufactured by child workers, an investigation by local authorities in Dongguan found that the Lekit Stationery Co. had hired 8 schoolchildren under 16 said that the children had not made Olympic souvenirs.