Sat, Jun 16, 2007 - Page 5 News List

China orders probe into slavery

GROWING CRISIS At least 251 laborers, including 29 children, have been rescued from brick yards across two provinces after being sold for US$65 each

AP , SHANGHAI

A group of rescued workers stand outside a police station after they were saved from a brick kiln in Linfen in northern China's Shanxi Province on May 27. Police said that they had rescued at least 251 people, including 29 children, who had been working as slaves in brick kilns.

PHOTO: AFP

Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and other national leaders yesterday ordered an investigation into snowballing reports of widespread use of slave labor in rural brick kilns, an issue dominating the national media.

Meanwhile, police in central China were hunting a kiln foreman who allegedly bought workers from human traffickers and forced them to haul bricks for months with no pay and little food.

Hu, Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) and others "gave important instructions" on handling the crisis, the official China News Service said. A prominent labor official was dispatched on Thursday to personally investigate one particularly notorious case, reports said.

While no other details were given, the involvement of top leaders was a clear indication of government concern over the reports that have swirled for days.

Xinhua news agency said yesterday authorities had rescued at least 251 slave laborers, among them 29 children, in raids on thousands of brick yards in Shanxi and Henan provinces.

Workers as young as 8 were recruited from bus and train stations with false promises or abducted off the street, then sold to kilns for 500 yuan (US$65) each, the reports said.

At least 44 people have been arrested or given lesser punishments, Xinhua said, citing police sources in Shanxi.

The raids were prompted in part by an open letter posted online signed by a group of 400 fathers appealing for help in tracking down missing sons they believe were sold to kiln bosses.

The fathers accused Henan and Shanxi authorities of ignoring them or even protecting the kilns and human traffickers, saying about 1,000 children were being forced to work at kilns under conditions of extreme cruelty.

The letter sparked an outpouring of television and newspapers reports, along with widespread discussion on the Internet. In just one such report yesterday, Shanghai's Oriental Morning Post ran a large photograph on its front page of one of the slaves in Shanxi's Hongtong county, showing his skin rubbed raw and bloody.

In an unusually detailed article, the Communist Party's main newspaper, People's Daily, said police stumbled by accident upon slave workers at a kiln in Hongtong while investigating reports of people making illegal fireworks.

The owner and two overseers were detained in the May 27 raid, and 31 workers rescued, the newspaper said.

However, it said foreman Heng Tinghan (衡庭漢) fled along with two enforcers. It said the Public Security Ministry has listed Heng as a wanted person of the second-highest importance.

The paper said Heng and others starved and thrashed workers too exhausted or sick to continue hauling bricks for 14 hours or more each day.

Authorities were prepared to apologize to the workers and pay back wages at twice the region's minimum rate along with one-time sympathy payments, the newspaper said.

However, it said most workers had already faded away, back to their homes in other provinces or to unknown destinations.

People's Daily quoted the Hongtong kiln's owner, Wang Binbin (王斌斌), saying the operation had originally employed local workers, but began using those provided by human traffickers last year after falling into debt.

Wang said he bought bricks from Heng in loads of 10,000 for 380 yuan per batch, then sold them on the local market for a profit of 600 yuan per load.

Wang was identified as the son of a local village-level party secretary who apparently provided protection from law enforcement, the report said.

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