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Workers are routinely forced to work excessive hours, labor under terrible conditions, suffer frequent injuries, are exposed to dangerous chemicals, and live in dormitories that are firetraps. Some work twelve-hour shifts, seven day work weeks, with only two trips to the bathroom a day. Some aren’t allowed to leave their factory compound. Some female workers are sexually harassed by their bosses.

A group called the National Labor Committee reported that the Dongguan-based KYE Systems Corp factory, which produces web cams, mice and X-Box controllers for Microsoft, treated its workers poorly. A report by the group claims that the 16- and 17-year-olds work 15-hour shifts for about 50 cents an hour, are prohibited from talking or going to bathroom while working, sleep in cramped 14-person rooms and only allowed to leave factory grounds at certain times.

Many factories have enforced overtime that goes late into the night on the weekend that defy a 1995 law that limits the work week to five days. Workers are routinely defrauded out their wages, fired if they try to organize a union, forced to work double shifts, and denied benefits that were promised them. In January 2007 a Japanese-owned light manufacturing factory closed, owing the 800 workers that were laid off $625,0000 on in overtime, insurance premiums and severance compensation.

One study showed that 61 percent of the workforce in Guangdong province routinely works seven-day work weeks and many workers work 10- and 12-hour days. Even when wages are fair they barely enough to live in China's increasingly expensive cities. Workers who get paid $160 a month in cities where new apartment can cost $300,000 or more are understandably having a hard time just paying their expenses. Chinese labor activist Han Dongfang wrote in Global Viewpoint, “Many factory workers have to put in more than 60 hours of overtime each month just to get by, performing the same robotic task time and again for hours on end without a break and no social interaction . No one can stand this mind-numbing and dehumanizing work 12 hours a day, six days a week.”

There are also many people that prey on the new arrivals: unscrupulous job brokers, fraudulent training programs and numerous scams aimed at cheating the poor and naive or even kidnaping women into prostitution. Migrant workers are often hired at the bus and train station by recruiters who promise them good wages which often don’t materialize. Some quickly become disillusioned by how little money they get for such long, hard work and return home. Some people get trapped, earning so little they can’t leave. Other get fried because of injuries or illnesses sustained in the job and the make their living mugging people and extorting money or some other criminal activity.

Good Websites and Sources: China Labor Watch ; China Labor Bulletin ; China Law Blog on New Labor Laws ; Book: Understanding Labor and Employment Law in China (Cambridge University Press, 2009) ; Gloomy Photos of Workers

Chinese Steelworkers Beat Takeover Boss to Death

In July 2009, workers beat to death an executive with Jianlong Steel Holding Company in Jilin Province in north-east China after 25,000 of the workers had been told they would lose their jobs in a takeover, according to sources quoted by state media. Afterwards officials in the province ordered the deal to be scrapped. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, July 27, 2009]

Beijing-based Jianlong is one of the largest private steelmakers in China. It planned to take a majority stake in the state giant Tonghua Iron and Steel Group, which makes about 7m tons of steel a year. But workers at Tonghua believed it would axe thousands of jobs. A demonstration halted production at the site and quickly escalated into violence.

“Employees [many of whom are shareholders] are close to enjoying financial gains as the price of steel continues to rise,” a police officer told the official newspaper China Daily. “Then Chen disillusioned workers and provoked them by saying most of them would be laid off in three days. Chen, saying that a total number of 30,000 employees would be cut to 5,000, infuriated the crowd.”

According to state media, Jianlong had held a sizable stake in Tonghua since 2005 and had been instrumental in restructuring the company. Last year Jianlong left the partnership following poor results — reportedly leading workers to celebrate with firecrackers. But as the price of steel rebounded, aided by the government's stimulus package, Tonghua's prospects improved and Jianlong sought a majority stake in the firm.

An initial report from a Hong Kong-based human rights organization suggested that 30,000 workers were involved in the riot — making it easily China's largest mass disturbance since an incident in Wengan, Guizhou, last summer. But other internet postings put the figures at about 10,000, while the state news agency Xinhua suggested 1,000 people were involved and China Dailyreported 3,000.

Xinhua said an investigation by the Jilin government showed that protesters rushed into the factory and halted production. It added: “A small number of the protesters found the injured manager who[had] been hidden and beat him repeatedly, while some others blocked the roads in the factory to prevent the police and ambulances from reaching the manager.” The Beijing News reported that employees began assaulting Chen after he demanded they resume work. They only halted their blockade of the plant at about 10pm, after local news reported that officials had ordered Jianlong to abandon their bid.

Hong Kong-based labor researcher Geoff Crothall, of China Labor Bulletin, said workers had reportedly complained that wages at Tonghua had been cut to as little as 300 yuan (£26) a month and that the management had turned off heating in the factory and dormitories during the winter.

Chinese Workers Sickened at a Gem-Processing Factory

One the case of a married couple working at a Hong Kong-financed gem-processing factory in Guangdong in the mid 200s labor activist Han Dongfang wrote on, “This factory was daily enveloped in clouds of dust at every stage of production from stonecutting to final polishing, but the employer never installed dust-prevention or suppression equipment as regulations required, and did not even give his workers protective masks. In 2000, some of the workers developed silicosis, and the disease gradually spread throughout the workforce. Management’s response was to refuse legally mandated compensation and medical treatment, and simply dismiss anybody with the illness. In 2005, the couple, who had been working at the factory for more than ten years, had themselves checked out at a local hospital at their own expense. The wife was diagnosed with stage II-plus silicosis and the husband’s lung x-rays showed dense shadowing. The doctor told him that, given his work history, he too certainly had early-stage silicosis. As with the other factory workers who received this news, the couple were dismissed.”

“With two children to support, a son aged 11 and a daughter aged six, they decided to accept an offer of legal assistance from China Labor Bulletin and launched a series of lawsuits. Their main demands were: that workers dismissed simply on suspicion of having an occupational illnesses be reemployed; that the court hold the employer accountable for neglect leading to bodily injury; that the local labor inspection authorities, who did nothing about the factory’s atrocious working conditions, be held to account; and likewise the occupational insurance authorities, who failed in their duty to compel the employer to arrange insurance cover for his employees.

“In filing these lawsuits, the couple aimed not only to obtain redress themselves, but at the same time help other similarly stricken colleagues still seeking compensation and treatment, and apply pressure to get other employers to improve working conditions and local authorities to enforce the law, and thereby prevent the recurrence of such tragedies. They knew the odds were stacked heavily against them — the wealthy factory boss had vast resources and very close ties with local government officials, while they had nothing but their need to make ends meet and their desire to fight for the rights of their colleagues.”

“Yet it was this burning desire that sustained them. They did not shout slogans about democracy and freedom from the rooftops; their actions were far more eloquent. Every step they took on their quest for justice was an ordeal, and also testimony to the spirit of the rule of law. Even though corrupt court officials eventually thwarted their efforts in the end, the very act of going to court brought pressure to bear on employers and local government officials, encouraging the former to show more respect for labor laws and basic worker rights, and the latter to be more diligent and stringent in law enforcement.”

Sick Chinese Workers Accused of Mass Hysteria

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Woman said to have contacted leukemia
from factory chemicals
Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “Tian Lihua was just beginning her morning shift when she felt a wave of nausea, then numbness in her limbs and finally dizziness that gave way to unconsciousness. In the days that followed, more than 1,200 fellow employees at the textile mill where Tian works would be felled by these and other symptoms, including convulsions, breathing difficulties, vomiting and temporary paralysis.[Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, July 29, 2009]

“When I finally came to, I could hear the doctors talking but I couldn’t open my eyes, she said weakly from a hospital bed last month. They said I had a reaction to unknown substances,” Tian told the New York Times.

Jacobs wrote, “Tian and scores of other workers say the unknown substances came from a factory across the street that produces aniline, a highly toxic chemical used in the manufacture of polyurethane, rubber, herbicides and dyes. As soon as the Jilin Connell Chemical Plant started production this spring, local hospitals began receiving stricken workers from the acrylic yarn factory 100 yards downwind from Connell’s exhaust stacks. On some days, doctors were overwhelmed and patients were put two to a bed.”

“A clear case of chemical contamination? Not so, say Chinese health officials who contend that the episode is a communal outbreak of psychogenic illness, also called mass hysteria. The blurry vision, muscle spasms and pounding headaches, according to a government report issued in May, were simply psychological reactions to a feared chemical exposure. During a four-day visit, a team of public health experts from Beijing talked to doctors, looked at blood tests and then advised bedridden workers to get a hold of their emotions, according to patients and their families.”

“Western medical experts say fear of poisoning can lead people to describe symptoms that exist mainly in their minds. But outbreaks of psychogenic illnesses on the scale of what has been reported in Jilin are rare, they say... Although they say those who fell ill in Jilin could have been poisoned, psychogenic experts outside China say it is also possible for some to have been affected by toxic fumes while others exhibited psychosomatic illnesses set off by real poisonings.”

Reaction by Sick Chinese Workers Accused of Mass Hysteria

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child labor
More than two months after the health complaints began, at least two dozen people remained hospitalized, and many others insisted that they were suffering from toxic poisoning. Local residents say the mass hysteria verdict is an attempt to cover up malfeasance. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, July 29, 2009]

“How could a psychological illness cause so much pain and misery”” Zhang Fusheng, a 29-year-old textile worker told the New York Times, gasping as he lay tethered to an oxygen line in the hospital, his limbs seized up and his eyes darting back and forth. “My only wish is to get better so I can go back to work and take care of my family.”

Jacobs wrote, “In May more than 1,000 residents blocked railroad tracks in the city for hours to draw attention to the sick workers. Their ire intensified after the State Administration of Work Safety posted a statement on its Web site describing the problem as a chemical leak and advising other companies to learn from Connell Chemical’s mistake. After a few hours, however, the statement had been removed.” “We are simply laboratory mice in Connell’s chemical experiment,” Xie Shaofeng, 34, a textile worker whose wife remains hospitalized, told the New York Times.

“The Ministry of Health in Beijing declined to provide details of their findings in Jilin, but according to local officials, investigators found no evidence of organ damage that would point to chemical exposure. “Jacobs wrote. “They added that those claiming to be sick had been in different parts of the sprawling textile factory and offered inconsistent descriptions of the odor of what they said caused their symptoms.”

Robert E. Bartholomew, a sociologist at the International University College of Technology in Malaysia, told the New York Times the government’s handling of the episode, including the ban on reports in the news media, might be fueling paranoia. The best way to handle psychogenic illness is to be open and transparent, which tends to dissipate concerns, said Bartholomew, a co-author of Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior. If it is indeed a case of mass hysteria, he said, it would be the largest instance of workplace psychogenic illness on record.

“Some patients have been sent to other cities for treatment; those who refuse to leave local hospitals say doctors have been given orders to stop their medication,” Jacobs wrote. “To get the skittish back to work, factory officials have added an incentive of $20 to $30 to monthly salaries that range from $120 to $200. In interviews, a half-dozen of those still hospitalized in Jilin said they had not been given a diagnosis nor were they allowed to see their medical records. One of them, Deng Yanli, 30, who is troubled by convulsions and constant dizziness, showed a receipt for 10 medications that included vitamin injections, pills to combat nausea and other treatments commonly given to stroke victims. She said doctors at Jihua Hospital stopped administering the drugs in early June in an effort to get her to leave.

Background Behind the Sick Workers Accused of Mass Hysteria

“The episode is not Jilin’s first experience with the perils of aniline,” Jacobs wrote. “In 2005, an explosion at another factory that produced the volatile substance killed eight people and sent 100 tons of deadly benzene and nitrobenzene into the Songhua River, tainting drinking water for millions of people downstream.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, July 29, 2009]

“Public anxiety was high even before the new $125 million aniline plant opened...During a test run...two security guards standing in front of the textile plant were overcome by fumes. Connell paid them compensation, although it is unclear what adjustments were made to the manufacturing process and, more important, the venting of its airborne byproducts, a mix of carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide and nitrogen oxide.”

“Shortly after production began, Li Hongwei, a 34-year-old Connell worker, collapsed and died on the job. Although rumors suggested that he had been poisoned, factory officials insist that Li succumbed to a heart attack. His family, which received a compensation package that included a job for his wife and a monthly $200 stipend for his mother and son, declined to talk to reporters.”

“After Li’s death, the authorities forced Connell to halt production for a month. But in early June, not long after it resumed, Wang Shulin, a 38-year-old technician at the textile mill, went into convulsions while on the job. He was sent to the hospital but died just as doctors were administering a CT scan, according to co-workers. The cause of death was a brain hemorrhage. Factory officials insist that Wang’s death had nothing to do with chemical exposure.”

“Such assurances have done little to quiet fears that Connell continues to taint the air. Li Jingfeng, 35, an electrician at an ethanol plant that abuts the aniline plant, said chemical detectors at his factory had gone off five or six times in the last month, forcing workers to evacuate. Everyone is nervous about what’s coming out of that place, he said.”

“Officials at Connell, which has resumed full production, say they are eager to move past the episode. Although privately owned, the plant has a complicated corporate structure that includes investors from Hong Kong and a number of local government officials. The aniline plant and the neighboring textile mill are partly owned by one another, and Connell, according to a company Web site, also runs a pharmaceutical concern that supplies Jilin City hospitals with 90 percent of their intravenous drugs.

Cementing the company’s prominence is its president, Song Zhiping, a representative to the National People’s Congress, China’s legislative body. Xu Zhongjie, vice chairman for corporate governance, said Song felt wounded by the allegations against her company, which he described as preposterous. I come here every day, and do I look sick? he asked with a broad smile. If we were spreading poison, the government wouldn’t allow us to continue production, and I have faith in the government.”

Chinese Worker Sent to Mental Institution over Pay Dispute

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child labor
In May 2011, the China Daily reported about a man who was allegedly confined for years to a mental health institution after he complained about being underpaid has led critics to ask whether the police overstepped their powers. Xu Wu, 43, said he once worked for Wuhan Iron and Steel (Group) Corp and claims his ordeal began in 2006 when he approached his bosses and told them he had been underpaid for several years. [Source: Qiu Quanlin and Guo Rui, China Daily, May 4, 2011]

After his lobbying failed, Xu took his beef to the authorities in Wuhan and then to Beijing, according to the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily. The paper said Xu was confined to a mental health institution on Dec 31, 2006, after Beijing police took him back to his hometown. According to the paper, Wuhan police said he was committed because he was planning to set off an explosion. Xu's family told the paper he had been tortured and forced by local police to confess to planning to set off a bomb after he was returned to Wuhan.

Xu's mother, Gong Lianfang, told the paper the family was forced by Wuhan police to agree to have Xu committed because police said "he would have faced criminal charges" if they did not. A report by a hospital affiliated to the Wuhan Iron and Steel (Group) Corp in 2006 claimed Xu was suffering from paranoid psychosis. But Xu and his father insisted he had never been diagnosed as having a mental illness, the paper reported.

Xu reportedly escaped from the mental health hospital on March 29, 2007, but was caught soon after and returned. He escaped again on April 19 and went to the Guangzhou Psychiatric Hospital in a bid to prove he was sane and should not have been committed. Xu was taken away by unidentified men on April 27 after finishing an interview with a TV station in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province. The men, who were not wearing uniforms and who produced no official documentation, led him away after he left the TV station.

According to reports, he is currently being confined in a hospital affiliated to the Wuhan Iron and Steel (Group) Corp. His continued confinement has captured the attention of critics. "Police have the right to take away Xu if Xu was a suspect but, as a man with a mental illness, which is what the hospital says he is, he should only be sent back to hospital by doctors or his family," said Gu Haowei, a Guangdong-based lawyer.

Cases in which law enforcement officers have abused their power and committed a healthy person to a mental health facility have made the headlines in recent years. Xu Lindong, a farmer from Henan province, was confined to a mental health facility for almost seven years after he complained to the central government between 1997 and 2003 on behalf of a friend with disabilities, whose land had been occupied by a third party.

Prison Labor in China

See Labor Camps, Forced Labor, See Prisons, Justice, Government.

Child Labor in China

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child labor

There are an estimated 10 million to 20 million child workers under the age of 16 in China. Children work in restaurants, beauty salons, metal workshops, karaokes bars and saunas (some as sex workers). They pick up trash, work in mines, lay pipes and dig ditches. Many are girls two work to help earn money for their families and send their brothers to school.

Chinese law forbids children under 16 from working. China has also signed international labor conventions forbidding minors under 15 from working. But laws rules are widely ignored and poorly enforced. Children eager to work can easily fake papers that say they are older than they really are. Factories that hire child laborers accept the papers and in some cases even provide them. Sometimes the factories get away without even hiring them by claiming they are apprentices.

Sometimes children take jobs that are so low-paying, dangerous and tedious that no adult will take them. There are been reports of children as young as four selling flowers on the streets and women renting babies so they don’t get hauled away by police for selling bootleg CDs and DVDs.

There are reports of children being kidnaped and forced to work in factories. In 2000, 84 children were kidnaped from southern Guzhou Province and forced to work assembling Christmas lights. Th youngest was 10.

Children have been put to work manufacturing fireworks. See Firecrackers, Education.

Brick-Kiln Slaves

Workers, some of them children, have been forced to work 18 hour days in slave-like conditions at a brick kilns in Henan, Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces. Many of the workers have been teenage migrant workers and young men recruited from bus and train stations with promises of well-paying jobs and then sold to the kilns for about $65, where they were prevented from leaving and forced to work almost around the clock with little or no pay. Pictures released by state media shows workers who skin had been rubbed raw and was severely burned from work.

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Thirty-one Chinese were rescued from a brick works in Linfen in Shanxi run by the son of a Communist Party official. They worked for a year as slaves — with no salary and only bread and water for nourishment. Eight were so traumatized by the experience they couldn’t speak except to mutter their names. They carried uncooled brick and walked barefoot inside the kilns. Their bodied were covered with bruises, wounds and burns. One local newspaper reported, “The grime on their bodies was so thick it could scraped off with a knife.”

The kilns in Linfen were like prisons. Fierce dogs and thugs were used to deter people from trying to escape. In some cases workers were abducted and worked until a ransom was paid for their release. One newspaper reported the case of a boy who was abducted then ransomed. Instead of being transported home he was taken to another kiln and put back to work. According to media reports one child was beaten to death with a shovel and buried at night and another was beaten to death with a hammer for working too slow.

The treatment of the kiln workers drew a lot of attention on the Internet. The revelations were en embarrassment to the government, which had been trying to persuade the public it was serious about creating a “harmonious society.” In June 2007, more than 35,000 police from Henan Province were sent out to make checks at 7,500 kilns. More than 1,000 people, including dozens of children, who had been working under slave-like conditions were freed. Attention was first drawn to problem by an open letter posted online by 4,000 mothers who wanted to known the whereabouts of their sons. There were reports that some of the victims were put to work by the same officials that rescued them.

More than 160 people were detained. They included government officials and police that colluded with the kiln owners. The foreman at one kiln was given a life sentence for causing intentional injury and unlawful detention. Another was sentenced to death for beating a laborer to death. The foreman was captured after a nation-wide man hunt. He said after he was caught, “I felt it was a fairly small thing, just hitting and swearing at the workers and not giving them wages. The dead man had nothing to do with me.”

In May 2009, police freed 32 mentally handicapped people forced to work “like slaves” in brick kilns in Anhui Province. Ten people suspected of holding them were arrested. In 2010, police freed 33 slave labourers from a brick factory in Hebei where they had been tortured with electric shocks as their masters attempted to maintain discipline and high output. In January 2011 police in Xinjiang freed 12 mentally disabled people from a factory producing talcum powder and quartz. The men appeared not to have been paid for four years.

Equally appalling condition exist at illegal mines. Some lawyers have advocated making slavery a specific crime with a punishment of up to life in prison.

Brick Kiln Slave Labor and Torture in China

Leo Lewis wrote in the Times of London, “Officials in southern China have swooped on a brick factory and laid bare a vision from hell where labourers were forced to work 16 hours a day for less than 50c a month. The discovery of the kiln was accompanied by revelations about a “black job agency” that traded the men as slaves and priced their lives at 400 yuan ($82) each. [Source: Leo Lewis, Times of London , May 15, 2011]

What was happening in Huizhou, in the southern province of Guangdong, shines more light on the dark side of China’s construction boom, a pace of building that has helped to propel the economy to the status of the world’s second largest. The brick industry is thought to be a heavy employer of forced and child labour.

Among the 17 men found at the Huizhou brickyard were three teenagers and one mentally disabled person. Some in Huizhou had been recruited by the “black agency”. Others appear to have been kidnapped. Huang Ruiming was walking in the street on May 7 when a minibus stopped and men bundled him into the vehicle. Soon, he had become a slave to the kilns. Wang Yaxing, one of the teenagers rescued, attempted suicide twice in the two weeks since his arrival.

Workers were fed on blocks of congealed pig blood, cabbage and potato. One worker said if they failed to work quickly the 25-strong teams of kiln-stokers would be beaten. Wang said, “When I first got here they didn’t even let me leave this cell. I was beaten up and even followed to the toilet.” A 15-year-old boy said, “I was trciked into being here.”

The wife of the factory manager lashed out, demanding to know how the authorities could release the 17 men before their debts had been paid. She produced a ledger with receipts bearing the workers’ fingerprints. Each one was made out to the value of 400 yuan.The freed workers said that they had applied to the job agency, which dispatched them to the brick factory, where they were forced to sign the receipts but received no money. Officials said there were dozens of similar kilns in the region and promised a more extensive investigation.

Mentally Disabled Exploited as Slaves

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In an adrenaline-paced economy with a chronic shortage of manual laborers, ruthless recruiters often prey on China's mentally disabled. The worst offenders work with the brick kilns that are feeding a seemingly insatiable appetite for the new apartment complexes and malls cropping up around the countryside. In the Beijing offices of Enable Disability Studies Institute, a nongovernmental organization, director Zhang Wei reels off a list of more than a dozen cases over the last decade in which people were enslaved in appalling conditions, each more nightmarish than the last.” [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, February 26, 2011]

“Young women have been sold by psychiatric hospitals as sexual partners and wives; mentally disabled young men have been imprisoned as forced laborers in coal mines and brick factories. In 2008, a brick factory owner beat a young man to death for an escape attempt. In December, Chinese authorities rescued 11 workers who had been sold by a supposed charitable organization for the disabled to a brick factory more than 1,000 miles away. At one factory workers hadn't been allowed to bathe in more than a year and were fed the same food as the boss' dog.”

Brick kilns and factories are particularly notorious for using mentally disabled workers. "The brick factories can never get as many workers as they need. The work is heavy and a lot of people don't want to do it," said Ren Haibin, the former manager of one of several brick factories where Liu said he had worked. "Possibly the mentally disabled can be intimidated and forced to work.... They are timid and easier to manage." "Every year there are cases like this," Zhang said. "The worst are when they are violating the rights of the disabled in the name of charity."

Mentally Disabled Man Forced to Work in Brick Kiln

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “At 30, Liu Xiaoping is more boy than man, with soft doe eyes that affix visitors with the unabashed stare of the very young and glisten with reluctant tears when his bandages are changed. It takes effort not to show the pain of the wounds that read up and down his body as a testament to the 10 months he was held captive at brick factories in the Chinese countryside. His hands are as red as freshly boiled lobster from handling hot bricks from a kiln without proper protective gloves. On the backs of his legs, third-degree burns trace the rectangular shape of bricks, a factory foreman's punishment for not working fast enough. Around his wrists, ligature marks tell of the chains used to keep him from running away at night.” [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, February 26, 2011]

“Liu was found wandering in the small town of Gaoling, north of Xian, on Dec. 22, 10 months after his family reported him missing. He was wearing the same clothing as when he'd disappeared in February, but the trousers were glued to the festering wounds on his legs and the gangrene of his frostbitten feet stank through the gaping holes in his shoes.” "They took advantage of my brother because he has a mental disability," his 26-year-old brother, Liu Xiaowei, told the Los Angeles Times. "They forced him to work, beat him, tortured him, and then when he was too weak to take it anymore, they threw him out on the street." Since Liu escaped from the brick factory, he has shuttled between home and the hospital, while his family tries to raise money for skin grafts.

“Liu Xiaoping...comes from a loving family who occupy the ground floor of a shabby apartment in southern Xian, where his father sells remedies to people too poor to afford a doctor. ..Liu doesn't speak much. When he does, the words come slowly but clearly, as though they've required some concentration. He left school in the third grade, when it became clear that he'd never be able to read or write beyond an elementary level. But he was strong and healthy. Neighbors would always call on him to help harvest wheat and potatoes and he would hang out at the market looking for odd jobs unloading trucks or carrying parcels.” "He wanted to stand on his own feet," said younger brother Xiaowei. "He was kindhearted and thinks that everybody else is too."

“Despite his injuries and an intellectual impairment, he was able to tell how he'd been tricked by a woman who bought him a bowl of soup and promised him the equivalent of $10 per day, good wages for manual work in rural China. Instead, he became a slave. On Feb. 28, 2010, the night of the Lantern Festival that ends the lunar New Year holiday, he and his family were visiting relatives in Shanyang, a town south of Xian. That night, Liu failed to come home, something that had never happened before. His family reported him missing the next day and printed posters that they distributed around the neighborhood. Little did they know that he had been transported almost 100 miles away to Gaoling, a rural county where there are dozens of brick factories tucked deep in the countryside.”

“Liu told of the beatings and burnings, of the food so meager than he lost 20 pounds, of being chained at night and guarded by vicious dogs, about being shuttled among three brick factories. He described in detail the location of the three brick factories where he'd worked. One factory lies at the end of a straight dirt road through fallow corn fields 10 miles from Gaoling. There are a few houses out front, and in back a partially underground room lined with chambers containing brick ovens. Although it was closed for the winter, the manager, Wang Youqiang, was on duty. "Look around if you like. There's no evidence against me. It's all just rumor," he told a visitor.”

Wang acknowledged that it's hard to find workers — "Business is great. We sold 27 million bricks last year and would have sold 30 million, if we had the labor" — but denied using the disabled. "If you say otherwise, show me the proof." But Ren Haibin, who was manager until June, when he says he retired because of ill health, confirmed most of what Liu Xiaoping claimed. He said the factory contracted with a man named Fang who would supply and supervise mentally disabled workers. Fang's mistress recruited them with the promise of $10 a day in wages. In fact, the going rate for healthy workers was about $14 a day, whereas the factory paid Fang $4.50 per day for each mentally disabled worker, of which $1.50 was spent on food. The rest went to Fang."They made promises they didn't keep," Ren said. "The money went into Fang's pocket. The workers never saw it." Ren said he never saw Fang beating a worker, but added: "He was not a kind person.... Maybe if they didn't work up to a certain level, there would be no food."

“Liu picked out from police photographs the woman who tricked him and a man known as Lao Fang, a nickname meaning "Old Fang," the foreman who beat him and the other workers. In the two months since Liu was found wandering, local authorities have visited many brick factories in the area, requesting lists of workers' names and where they've come from. But no one has been arrested and Liu's family has yet to receive compensation for his medical bills. "I thought this should be so simple, an open-and-shut case, but it has proved so complicated," said his brother Liu Xiaowei. "I'm very disappointed that our society hasn't done more to protect people like my brother."

Looking for Mentally Disabled Man Forced to Work in Brick Kiln

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Liu’s family might never have found him if not for another family who'd also lost a son to the brick factories... He Wen went missing June 2. The 35-year-old had been psychologically troubled since his late teens, when he'd suffered a breakdown after failing an exam. He was unable to hold a regular job but could unload trucks and was proud that he'd managed to buy his own television set. The afternoon he disappeared, a nephew overheard him taking a telephone call from a woman who'd offered him a job that would provide more than $10 a day, meals and a free pack of cigarettes. He rode away on a bicycle.” [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, February 26, 2011]

“His father, He Zhimin, is a 62-year-old farmer with unruly whiskers and hands that tremble as he fingers photographs of his missing son. "I was suspicious as soon as I heard about this supposed job offer. I started asking around and people told me stories about the brick factories," He said. He went to the local police, but they told him to file the report in nearby Gaoling. The police there sent him back. "They kept kicking me from one place to another," he said.

Police often won't exert much effort when a mentally disabled person disappears, he said, and even if they're rescued, their testimony is not taken seriously because of their impairment. "This is not like when a child goes missing. Police will just assume they've run away," Zhang Wei of Enable Disability Studies Institute, told the Los Angeles Times. Some families, he says, won't even bother to report. "They might feel that they've been relieved of the burden."

“He Zhimin launched his own investigation,” Demick wrote. “Every afternoon, he'd go out in a three-wheel motorized cart, handing out fliers and business cards with images of his son's square-jawed face. Somebody printed out a map from Google and he marked the locations of all the brick factories he heard about: 58 in Gaoling alone. Four workers at one factory said He Wen had worked there earlier in the summer and they gave his father directions to other factories nearby. An elderly woman had seen the younger He walking toward downtown Gaoling. Construction workers erecting an apartment complex thought he might have worked there. "People kept saying they'd seen my son, but by the time I'd get there, he'd have disappeared."

In December, somebody telephoned to say a homeless man who looked like his son was sleeping on the street in Gaoling. He rushed over. He could see that the unshaven, dirt-encrusted man looked like his son: the same height, close in age. But he was not. Disappointed, he returned home. His wife was furious. "How could you leave that boy out on the street in winter? Maybe it was our son, after all. Even if he's not, he's somebody's son," she badgered her husband. After a sleepless night, he drove back to Gaoling. The homeless man was still out in the street, but he was too delirious to give his name. He tried to take him to the police and to a hospital, but nobody wanted to take him in. Finally, he called a journalist, who matched the young man's description to that of another young man reported missing. He was Liu Xiaoping. Liu identified a photograph of He Zhimin's missing son as one of 11 disabled workers imprisoned with him.”

He Zhimin, meanwhile, is no closer to finding his son. He fears that whoever is holding him may have spirited him far away to avoid detection. It's not an unreasonable fear; when the disabled workers were rescued in December in Xinjiang, one was found to have been transported 2,000 miles across China. He Zhimin continues to go out every afternoon, driving through the countryside near the brick factories, thrusting fliers into the hands of passersby. By now, most people recognize him, so they simply shake their heads: No, they haven't seen his son.

Forced Labor and Human Trafficking in China

In April 2008, the muckraking newspaper Southern Metropolis exposed a child labor racket involving a number of factories in Dongguan in the Pearl River Delta of southern China. Some of children were said to have been kidnapped or bought in the impoverished area of Lianghsna in Sichuan Province. Factories were reportedly driven to resort to child labor because of a labor shortage and rising labor costs.

Human trafficking and forced labor thrive under conditions in which there is little protection or recourse for those who have been subjected to forced labor. When parents of disappeared children go to the police the police often tell them to get lost. Parents often have to look for their children themselves. When they post photos or ads in newspaper more often they are contacted by scam artists out to cheat them than by people with real leads. When they arrive at places that use forced labor they are chased away by thugs. Even then the police offer little help.

Although official statistics list only 2, 375 cases of child trafficking in 2006 the true number is thought to be in the tens of thousands even hundreds of thousands,

These days boys are sought after by human traffickers more than girls as the demand for force labor increase. Increasing boys and teenagers are kidnapped from construction sites, lured by various scams and put to work in brick kilns and factories. Many of the victims are unsupervised children of migrant workers. Some of drugged before they are taken away.

Even when traffickers are caught they are either lightly published or not punished at all because there are no laws on the books that apply to human traffickers.

The mother of a forced laborer told the Washington Post that her son was 15 when he was surrounded by a group of five men while eating food. The men taped his mouth, tied his hands, blindfolded him and threw him into a car, First he worked at a kiln in Henan, then one in Shanxi province and later another kiln in Henan. After three years he managed to escape. His mother said when she saw him again, “I could barely recognize him...He was skinny, his hair dirty and messy. I saw scars and bruises on his body, knife cuts on his elbow and burns on his feet. He didn’t wear shoes while he was laboring in the kiln, and his feet have not yet recovered.”

In March 2008, thirty-three partially disabled people forced to work as slave laborers at a building site were rescued in Hulan, a city in Heliongjiang Province. The workers were forced to live together in a 30 square meter residential building. Authorities were alerted after one of them tried to commit suicide.

Image Sources: China Smacks, YouTube, China Labor Watch; Reuters, Telegraph

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2011

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