Police have detained 168 suspects and captured a foreman accused of holding workers in virtual slavery amid a national uproar over teenagers and men forced to work in brutal conditions at brick kilns.
The large-scale police operation was aimed at rescuing hundreds of slave laborers in small brick kilns and mines in Shanxi and Henan provinces.
Forty-eight people who were allegedly involved in the use of slave labor were detained in Shanxi, while the others were held in Henan, local police sources said yesterday.
By Saturday, 351 people, including 22 under the age of 18, were freed after police stormed more than 3,700 small brick kilns and coal mines, many of them unlicensed, in Shanxi, the country's biggest coal producer.
Heng Tinghan, a 42-year-old foreman of a brick kiln in Hongtong county, was arrested late Saturday after the Ministry of Public Security put him on the most wanted list.
Heng is suspected of forcing people to work as slaves in a brick kiln for which he was a contractor from March 2006. One of them died and 20 were injured under inhumane working conditions.
When caught in Hubei, Heng apologized for mistreating the workers but refused to accept responsibility for the death of the mentally-impaired man, a Hubei newspaper reported.
"I felt it was a fairly small thing, hitting and swearing at the workers and not giving them wages," Heng said, according to the Shiyan Evening News. "The dead man had nothing to do with me."
Wang Bingbing, the kiln owner, and four taskmasters have been detained. Heng was the contractor of Wang's kiln and police are hunting for two other suspects.
Wang Dongji, Party branch secretary of Caosheng Village, Shanxi, is being investigated after his son was found to be the owner of an illegal brick kiln which forced 32 people into work.
A few county-level officials are also being investigated.
In Central China's agricultural province of Henan, a major source of slave workers, police have detained 120 suspects.
They freed 217 workers, including 29 aged under 18 and 10 mentally-impaired persons, according to the Henan provincial public security bureau.
Five gangs involved in organizing slave workers for brick kilns, in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan, have been busted and 13 members arrested.
The use of slave workers came under the spotlight after an open "call-for-help" letter posted on the Internet earlier this month by more than 400 parents in Henan who believed their missing children had been sold as slave workers.
The fathers said most of their children were abducted or tricked by traffickers at railway and bus stations in Zhengzhou and sold in Shanxi for 500 yuan ($65).
Some parents of the missing children in Henan had gone to brick kilns in Shanxi to try to rescue their children before the scandal was widely reported in the domestic media.
Many were forced to work 14 to 20 hours a day without payment; and beaten if they were caught trying to escape.
China's top authorities have expressed great concern.
A working team comprising officials from the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Labor and Social Security and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions has gone to Shanxi to investigate the case.
Sun Baoshu, vice-minister of labor and social security, said the case "had an extremely bad impact". Sun, also head of the team, pledged that those involved in the sale and use of slave workers face the full force of the law.
Source: Xinhua/China Daily