Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Mainland police arrested 168 people involved in the kidnapping and enslavement of hundreds of adults and children, forced to work in brick kilns in central China. Almost 500 people were freed, including 50 minors, some as young as eight years old.
Heng Tinghan, foreman of an illegal brick factory in Hongdong County in Shanxi, was captured on Saturday night after a nationwide manhunt. He is accused of forcing people to work as slaves at the Hongdong brick kiln since March last year, causing one death and at least 20 injuries under gruelling working conditions.
After his capture in the city of Danjiangkou (Hubei Province), the Shiyan Evening News quoted Heng as saying that “it was a fairly small thing, just beating and swearing at the workers and not paying them wages.”
His wife, Yang Xiaolan, was also detained.
The slavery scandal was first exposed by a Henan television station, followed by an internet petition by more than 400 parents appealing for help in tracking missing children they believe were sold to kiln bosses.
Most of the children were kidnapped from railway and bus stations in Zhengzhou and sold by traffickers to kiln owners in Shanxi for 500 yuan (US$ 65).
Many of the enslaved workers were forced to work 14 to 20 hours a day without pay and would be badly beaten if caught trying to escape.
Parents have accused local police of ignoring their complaints, even of protecting the owners of the slave kilns.
Mainland authorities have launched a probe into the allegations and started cracking down.
Since late last month, more than 20,000 police in Shanxi have raided more than 3,700 small brick factories and coal mines, many of them unlicensed, freeing 374 people, including 18 under 14 and six aged 14 to 18. Another 35,000 police agents were mobilised in Henan—217 slave workers, including 29 aged under 18 and 10 who are mentally disabled, have been rescued,
Parents estimate that there are at least a thousand children working in brick kilns.
The Provincial Public Security Bureau in Zhengzhou announced that five gangs involved in organising slave workers were busted and 13 gang members arrested.
Local sources say however that forced labour is commonplace in rural areas and slavery in factories was not concealed, that in fact it had been brought to the attention of the authorities several times before.