A crackdown by authorities on small brick factories in two Chinese provinces has freed more than 560 people, including more than 50 under the age of 18, who were allegedly forced to work without pay in often appalling conditions.
Amid a widening scandal that state media say has shocked the nation, authorities in Shanxi and Henan provinces have also detained more than 160 people for involvement in abducting workers or forcing them to labour in virtual servitude.
The scale of the abuses uncovered over the past week in Shanxi and Henan is a stark reminder of the difficulty of ensuring even the most basic labour rights in a vast country with patchy law enforcement, widespread official corruption and no independent workers’ unions.
The crackdown, involving tens of thousands of police, also highlights the previous failure of local authorities to act despite long-standing appeals for action against brick kilns in the area from parents who accused them of holding their children captive.
Last week’s crackdown was prompted in part by widespread media attention given to the suffering of 31 workers freed earlier this month from a kiln in Shanxi’s Hongtong County, where they had allegedly been beaten, starved and forced to work long hours for no pay.
Another worker at the kiln was allegedly beaten to death by its managers for not working hard enough. Photographs of the traumatised and filthy freed workers showed them with wounds and burns across their bodies.
The scandal at the kiln has fuelled suspicions that such abuses are tolerated by local officials, since its owner is the son of the local Communist party chief.
The kiln foreman was detained by police at the weekend.
Foreman Heng Tinghan denied involvement in the killing, which he blamed on a person apparently employed as a guard at the factory – and apologised to the workers, according to the Shiyan Evening News.
However, Mr Heng appeared surprised by the attention the case had attracted.
“I feel this was not such a big issue, just a matter of beating and cursing workers and not paying wages to them,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. “The dead person was nothing to do with me.”
Continuing abuses at the brick kilns, as well as widespread breaches of labour laws at the small mines and metalworks that are common in Chinese rural areas, expose the limitations of the central government's drive to protect migrant worker interests.
Just last year, more than 30 labourers were freed from a Shanxi kiln where they had been locked up for months, beaten and over-worked.