Parents forced to hunt in slave pits for children

Howard French in Shanghai
June 18, 2007

SU JINDUO and his sister Su Jinpen were travelling home by bus from a holiday visit to the eastern city of Qingdao during the Chinese new year when they disappeared.

Their father, Su Jianjun, said Jinduo, 16, and Jinpen, 18, were cheated out of their money when they sought to buy a ticket for the final leg of the journey home, and were taken in by a woman who gave them shelter and a meal on a cold winter night. The woman also offered them a chance to earn enough money to pay their fare by helping her sell fruit, Mr Su said.

However, the next thing they knew they were being loaded onto a minibus with several other children and taken to a factory in the next province, where they were pressed into service making bricks. Several days later Jinduo escaped, with another boy, and managed to reach home. A few days later Mr Su was able to rescue his daughter.

This story and many others like it have swept China in recent days in an unfolding labour scandal in central China that involves the kidnapping of hundreds of children, most in their teens but some as young as eight.

The children, and many adults, have reportedly been forced to work under brutal conditions - scantily clothed, unpaid and often fed little more than water and steamed buns - in the brick kilns of Shanxi and Henan provinces.

Police have rescued 568 people and detained 168, including Heng Tinghan, the alleged foreman of a kiln in Hongtong county where 31 enslaved workers were recently rescued. Police caught Heng in central China's Hubei province late on Saturday after a nationwide hunt.

Mr Su said his children were brought to the factory about midnight of the day they vanished. Once there, they were told they would have to make bricks. He said the children were told: "You will start working in the morning, so get some sleep, and don't lose your bowls, or you will have to pay for them." They were also charged the equivalent of about $7.80 for a blanket.

Mr Su managed to recover his children after only a matter of days at the kiln, but many other parents have been less fortunate, losing contact with children for months or years. As stories of forced labour at the brick kilns have spread, hundreds of parents have petitioned local authorities to help them find their children and crack down on the kilns.

In some cases, according to Chinese media reports, parents have also teamed up to try to rescue their children, placing little stock in the local authorities, who are sometimes in collusion with the operators of the kilns. Other reports have said that local authorities, including labour inspectors, have taken children from newly closed kilns and resold them to other factories.

The director of the legal department of the Shanxi province Workers Union said it was hard to monitor the kilns because of their location in isolated areas.

"Those factories are located in very remote places, and most of them are illegal entities, without any legal registration, so it is very hard for people outside to know what is going on there," said the union official, Zhang Xiaosuo. "We are now doing a province-wide investigation into them, both the legal and illegal ones, to look into labour issues there."

Liu Cheng, a professor of labour law at Shanghai Normal University, had a different explanation. "My first reaction is that this seems like a typical example of a government-business alliance," Professor Liu said. "Forced labour and child labour in China are illegal, but some local governments don't care too much."

Zhang Xiaoying, 37, whose son, 15, disappeared in January, said she had visited more than 100 brick factories during a handful of visits to Shanxi province in search of him.

"You just could not believe what you saw," Ms Zhang said in a telephone interview. "Some of the kids working at these places were at most 14 or 15 years old."

The local police, she said, were unwilling to help. Outside one factory, they even demanded bribes, she said.

"We finally got into that place and I saw people hauling carts of bricks with great difficulty.

"Some of them were very small, and the ropes they pulled left tracks of blood on their shoulders and backs. Others were making bricks, standing by the machines.

"They had to move the bricks from the belt very quickly, because they were hot and heavy and they could easily get burnt or hurt by the machines."

By Friday, with the help of Mr Su, Ms Zhang finally located her son at a kiln near the one to which Mr Su's children had been taken.

The New York Times, Reuters