Slave drivers

High-growth China’s seedy underbelly gets exposed

Slave drivers

One of the rescued workers, pictured at a brick kiln

It all started with a ruse. Reporters from the Xinjiang Metropolis Daily newspaper told Li Xinglin, owner of the Jiaersi Green Construction Material factory in Toksun in Xinjiang, that they wanted to interview him for a story on pollution.

But once inside Li’s factory they were able to confirm their real story – that 12 people (most of them mentally disabled) were being forced to work in brutal conditions and without pay. They were being fed the same food as the factory owner’s dog, the media reported.

Li’s workforce had been held captive for more than three years, denied even the most basic protective equipment and beaten if they tried to escape, according to reports. Their work: grinding down rocks into talcum power and quartz sand. The news made headlines across the country. After the workers were released, Li tried to make a run for it (he’s since been arrested).

The investigation uncovered a forced labour network. It’s thought that at least eight of Li’s labourers were trafficked 2,800km through a slave-trading system based in Sichuan in which former farmer Zeng Lingquan took advantage of the vulnerable (beggars and the mentally handicapped) through his ‘Beggars Adoption Agency’.

The organisation portrayed itself as a charity (though it was apparently unlicensed). “Zeng set up the agency and sent workers across the country to allow those people who can’t take care of themselves … to make a living on their own,” Li confessed to Xinjiang Metropolis Daily.

Li paid Zeng about $1,300 per person up front for his indentured labour, as well as another $44 each month thereafter – an extremely profitable deal considering it would have cost him around $22 a day to hire conventional workers.

Zeng wasn’t the only bad apple. He was in cahoots with other local ‘charities’, as well as officials in charge of a state-run asylum, according to Southern Weekend magazine. (Zeng and the other trafficker have since been arrested, and the asylum officials are under investigation). “Since 1996, Zeng Lingquan has sent at least 70 mentally disabled people to work in Beijing, Tianjin and other cities,” a Qu county official told China Daily.

The problem extends beyond a single county in Sichuan. A few days after the story broke, reporters uncovered two brick factories in Shandong and another in Shaanxi using mentally disabled workers.

The latest stories have a disturbingly familiar ring to them for many Chinese. In 2007, there was nationwide outcry after hundreds of people (including children) had to be rescued from slavery in ‘black’ brick kilns in Shanxi. Since then there have been other incidents. Hundreds of child slaves were rescued from factories in Guangdong (supposedly one of China’s most prosperous provinces) in 2008, and early last year local media exposed another brick factory forcing the mentally disabled to work for just $30 a year.

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