CHINA: Brickwork slave children may number 1,000

[BEIJING, 15 June 2007] - As many as 1,000 children may have been sold into slave labour in central China, enduring maiming and brutality in primitive brick kilns, state media said amid an expanding scandal about official neglect.

The owners ran the prison-like kilns in Shanxi and Henan provinces with fierce dogs and thugs who beat the children at will, state television said. One accidentally killed a child with a shovel and buried the body at night, it said.

The workers, mostly young males, some of whom were kidnapped from around the country, were shown on television sleeping on bricks inside the brickworks with doors sealed from outside with wire and windows barred to prevent their escape.

Some had horrific, festering wounds on their black feet and around their waist, presumably from burns from the kiln.

"We wanted to run but we couldn't," one dishevelled worker was quoted as saying. "I tried once and was beaten."

An army of 35,000 police in central China had so far rescued 217 people, including 29 children, the China Daily reported on Friday.

Still trapped

But many more may still be trapped, it added. As many as 120 suspects had been detained.

"Our conservative estimate is that at least 1,000 minors from Henan have been trapped and cheated into back-breaking work in these Shanxi brick kilns," a reporter from Henan said on the current affairs programme Oriental Horizon.

The programme showed workers who had been recently rescued - ragged, emaciated and mute and some bearing injuries.

But even amid the high-profile rescue effort, criticism is rising of official indifference to the poor farming families.

Local media reports and Web sites have cited what they have said is a petition from fathers of boys kidnapped from Henan. They complained that Shanxi police were unwilling to help Henan authorities to find and rescue the children.

Plea to government

"We are too weak and our children face constant threats to their life. We can only beg the government," said a copy of the document.

The China Youth Daily noted that local officials had apologised for failing to rescue the workers.

"But we have even more reason to ask why was it only after the case was widely reported by the media and shocked the central leadership that the local government then thought to apologise to these poor rural workers," it said.

"The local officials, did they really not know about the situation or did they choose to look the other way?" the China News Service asked.

The People's Daily, mouthpiece of the Communist Party, said tacit approval or even collusion from poorly funded local governments was to blame.

"At present, some grassroots governments are grappling with huge debts, so they are sluggish in administration and even gain incomes illegally, causing instability in rural areas," it said.

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