Rescue teams comprising a staggering 35,000 police officers in Henan Province have freed 217 people, including 29 children, from slavery in illegal brick kilns - but more are believed to be held captive, provincial police said yesterday.
The laborers were abducted by human traffickers and taken to the kilns, where they were beaten, starved and forced to work long hours without payment, according to the police.
Up to 120 suspects have been detained.
Reacting to media reports in the past week on the plight of the trafficked children, many of them from Henan, held captive in the province and neighboring Shanxi, Henan police started inspecting brick kilns in the province on Saturday.
Until Tuesday, police checked 7,500 kilns, and the campaign continues.
Qin Yuhai, vice-governor and police chief of Henan, said: "We must do everything we can to fight human trafficking and rescue those held captive."
The provincial police bureau told China Daily yesterday it had asked its counterparts in Shanxi to help with the rescue; and reported the case to the Ministry of Public Security.
Spokesman Wu Heping said the ministry has asked for more information from the provincial bureaus in Henan and Shanxi on the alleged slave labor.
Wang Zhaoguo, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, and also the president of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, had ordered the investigation.
The Shanxi Evening News reported that Zhang Mingqi, a member of the federation's secretariat, expressed "great shock" over the "horrific" case when he visited a kiln in Hongtong of Shanxi on Wednesday.
Police freed 31 workers from the kiln late last month, with the youngest aged 14. One worker was earlier beaten to death, the report said.
The Ministry of Public Security has issued a warrant for the arrest of a kiln overseer, Heng Tinghan, who is at large.
The slave labor issue first surfaced last Thursday when 400 fathers in Henan - who believed their children had been sold to work in illegal brick kilns in Shanxi - sought help online.
The fathers said in a petition that they had "spent all their money and risked their lives to go deep into the mountains looking for their children, the youngest only eight". They managed to rescue about 40 but said there were at least 1,000 child laborers still in Shanxi.
They said some children had been isolated from the outside world for seven years, and some were beaten and maimed when they tried to escape. The backs of some were burnt by supervisors with burning red bricks.
The International Labour Organization Office for China and Mongolia yesterday said it would keep a close eye on developments in the case, and called for stronger child protection.
China's Criminal Law stipulates that anyone who illegally detains another person and causes severe body injury shall receive a minimum sentence of three years. Capital punishment can be meted out if death is involved.
Source: China Daily