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China cracks down on slave labor

The grandmother of missing 18 year-old Sun Bing shows his picture.

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Tess Vigeland: In China today, the government announced a nationwide crackdown on enslavement. The move came after reports of widespread human trafficking and the use of forced labor in brick-making facilities.

Since the scandal broke last week, officials have visited 8,000 kilns and released some 600 laborers who toiled in intolerable conditions and were paid pittances — if at all. The freed workers are now returning home.

Marketplace's Scott Tong tracked down two victims who shared their experiences with him.


Scott Tong: Two months back, 38-year-old Pan Zhifeng did what millions of migrants do every day in China: He looked for work in the city, by the train station. It was 5 o'clock in the morning on March 8, in the western city of Xi'an.

Pan Zhifeng (voice of interpreter): Three guys pulled up in a minivan and offered me a job — $10 a day. I said no. Then, after a skirmish, they dragged me into the van.

Pan says the thugs sold him for $80 to a brick factory owner in Shanxi Province.

On his first day at work:

Zhifeng: They beat me eight times, because I didn't know how to do the job. They would strike me with unfinished bricks. Once, they hit me with a stick til it broke into four pieces.

Pan says repeated blows to the head have mentally impaired him, made it hard for him to focus. But still, he speaks with intensity.

Zhifeng: The foreman would say, "You mother [bleep]ers. If you don't work, I'm gonna break your legs."

And he limps, too.

For days now, the Chinese media have reported similar tales — of young and middle-aged men forced to work 12, sometimes 18-hour days under horrid conditions.

Robin Munro of the human rights group China Labor Bulletin says all the victims here are migrants, the hundreds of millions of workers who are central to what many consider China's industrial miracle.

Robin Munro: It's one extreme, particularly egregious case of a wider phenomenon. And that is a massive drift towards increasing social inequity, absolute gap between rich and poor.

On June 5, authorities barged into the factory where Pan Zhifeng works. They freed him and half a dozen other workers. So far, the government says nearly 600 workers have been released.

The ongoing crackdown exposes what Munro calls mafia-like relationship between local politicians in China and industry.

Munro: When we're seeing the sheer scale of this — thousands of workers in this condition — this is not possible without the knowledge of local officials. They were taking part in the profits, they were giving illegal approvals and they were providing an umbrella of official protection.

He says that umbrella also includes local police.

In Pan Zhifeng's village, about an hour outside Xi'an where he was abducted, we caught up to several members of his extended family.

This uncle of his thinks the police in the brick-making neighborhoods of China are being paid to look the other way.

Zhifeng's Uncle (voice of interpreter): To fix all this, we have to start with the police and punish them. It starts at the top. Otherwise, if you just deal with the folks from the bottom up, you're addressing the symptoms and not the disease.

As for the brick-kiln owners, Pan's uncle would prefer them beheaded.

So far, government authorities have arrested 160 factory officials.

While much of the attention has focused on slave workers who are young males — some as young as 8 years old — many victims are older. Like 56-year-old corn farmer Wang Jiangming. He was not kidnapped — he was duped.

Wang Jiangming (voice of interpreter): One day, two women approached me and offered me a job. They said it was a farming job, not brick work, and that the job provided food, housing and clothing. They said they'd pay me $2.50 per day.

Wang took the bait. And it turns out $2 is what Wang got for nine months of work at a brick kiln. Forced work.

Jiangming: You couldn't run away. They even followed you to the john. The whole place was surrounded by mountains. And even if you tried to run, they sent two or three motorbikes to chase you. Then they brought you back and made you pay.

Wang's bosses let him go last winter — traditionally the slower season for making bricks. He walked and he says he begged for 40 days on the way home.

Still, some consider Wang Jiangming lucky. He got out. Hundreds of children in this part of China are still missing. Perhaps abducted, perhaps working against their will.

Again, Robin Munro:

Munro:'Cause we just don't know how widespread this is. I mean, if you have a problem this massive and this serious and this heinous in one sector of industry in this particular part of China, what about all the other rural areas throughout the country, which no one is watching?

This is the grandmother of a missing 18-year-old, Sun Bing:

Sun Bing's Grandmother (voice of interpreter): October 2005 was the last time he called us. The last time we heard from him.

In Xi'an, western China, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

Former slave laborer Pan Zhifeng shows injury incurred at a brick kiln in Shanxi Province. (Scott Tong)

 

Former slave laborer Wang Jiangming in rural Shanxi Province. (Scott Tong)

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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