Chinese police have detained 168 people accused of keeping workers in slavery under appalling conditions at small brick kilns and mines in the provinces of Shanxi and Henan.
By Saturday, 315 people, including 22 under the age of 18, had been freed after police raided more than 3,700 small brick kilns and collieries, many of which were unlicensed, in northern Shanxi, the country's leading coal base.
Police in central Henan said they had freed 217 slave laborers, including 29 juveniles and 10 mentally handicapped people.
In recent days, Chinese media have exposed the brutal treatment of these workers, sparking public outrage.
As the whole nation condemns the illegal employers and voices sympathy for the victims and their families, we should be asking how local governments allowed such blatant labor abuses to happen in broad daylight.
First of all, labor protection officials must shoulder a large portion of blame. They are paid to ensure that workers' rights are protected through a labor contract with their employers, minors are not employed, weekly working hours do not exceed 40 and all workers are paid on time and in full.
But many of the enslaved workers, mostly uneducated peasants who have never been aware they had any rights, were forced to work 14 to 20 hours a day without payment. Owners of the primitive brick kilns ran their operations like prisons, making use of fierce dogs and thugs who beat children at will.
One report revealed that one mine owner accidentally killed a child with a shovel and buried the body at night and another was apparently beaten to death with a hammer for working too slowly.
But still local officials claim they knew nothing about the situation before it was exposed by the media. This seems highly unlikely given one of the kiln owners detained, Wang Bingbing, was the son of the village Communist Party secretary. No resignations have been forthcoming.
Secondly, police in Shanxi and Henan have patently failed to perform their duty to protect the people.
In fact, in parts of Shanxi, some factions of the police harbored the illegal brick kiln owners, most of whom were rich and powerful enough to buy off officials, and refused to assist with the investigations even after the scandals were exposed.
It now also seems possible that we have the sickening scenario of a policeman, who was compliant in the abuses, now leading the efforts to uncover the crimes and bring people to justice. Where do his true loyalties lie?
Many parents found that their endeavors to rescue their children were thwarted not just by the illegal employers but also by police.
A father, who failed to find his own son but was hoping to rescue several other kids from his hometown, said local policemen had refused to help him. "If you find your own kid, just take him away. Otherwise, keep your nose out of this," a policeman told him.
Slavery scandals are not unique to Shanxi and Henan.
Early this year, a company in northeastern Heilongjiang Province was accused of enslaving at least 100 migrants after cheating them of all their money. The scandal hit local headlines for weeks. But until last week, the policeman in charge of investigation was still telling Xinhua, "The managers have fled and we haven't captured anyone."
During the Chinese Spring Festival holidays in February, a 19-year-old migrant worker managed to flee a hard labor camp in the remote mountains of Yichun, a city in Heilongjiang. Running barefoot, he lost a toe to frostbite.
Even though local police and labor authorities were pressured by the media to look into the case, the police eventually decided there was not enough evidence to accuse the suspects, who insisted the workers were hired at their own will.
And "a temporary suspension to overhaul operations" was the only punishment meted out to a company in Guangzhou that was found to have abused migrant workers and slashed their wages.
It's far from enough to detain the abusers and compensate the abused. The relevant government departments need to learn from these cases and officials should be severely penalized for abusing their position and neglecting their duty.
Workers are the cornerstone of a society. By enslaving the workers, the kiln owners are not just subjecting workers, regardless of their age, to extreme misery. They are making a mockery of China's social order and justice system.
It is high time the government stepped up labor protection and spurred idle officials to do their jobs properly if we are to come even close to building a "harmonious society".