Slavery in China Combing the Brickyards for the Disappeared

It's a story that has made headlines around the world: Slave laborers have been found in Chinese brick factories. The authorities have freed many of them, but some fear there could be hundreds more being imprisoned, beaten and starved. Some parents have begun searching for their sons on their own.

The 22-year-old farmer’s son Ma Yongqiang from the village Yubao in the fertile fields near China’s Yellow River wanted finally to get married, but his chances were limited. Before tying the knot, a groom has to have a house or at least a decent job to show his prospective father-in-law. But Ma didn’t have either. Making things worse, he didn’t make a particularly handsome catch with his diminutive stature, droopy right eyelid and his mere six years of education.

A group of freed slave workers outside a police station in the northern Chinese town of Linfen after being freed from a brick factory where they had been imprisoned.

A group of freed slave workers outside a police station in the northern Chinese town of Linfen after being freed from a brick factory where they had been imprisoned.

And so he left his job at his uncle’s construction company where he was being trained to become a welder. His salary of 500 yuan a month, roughly €50, wasn't nearly enough to find a bride.

That was just before Chinese New Year. On February 28, Ma boarded a bus and traveled 60 kilometers to the old imperial city of Xi’an. Once there he asked for directions to a job agency near the train station, where he promptly got an offer. “I was supposed to become a watchman," Ma says. "They promised me 1,500 yuan a month.”

The next morning he piled into a small car known in China as a “breadbox” with three other men. During the trip Ma asked if he could call home once more, but was told: “Not any more.” That’s when Ma realized his job search had taken a turn for the worse.

Three Tortuous Months

His trip ended some 60 kilometers outside of Xi’an on the other side of the Yellow River in a village called Houfeng in Shanxi province. Ma and his three companions were then imprisoned in a narrow space already occupied by others. Three tortuous months followed.

From 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. each day, Ma was forced to push a cart filled with bricks. The first meal was at 2:30 p.m. and the second only after the workday was done. “We got cabbage and steamed buns,” says Ma. He was never paid for his labor. The foremen holding them captive beat anyone who was too slow, complained, or even simply talked to other laborers. One morning at 3 a.m. he managed to escape. He fled through a pepper plantation in a remote valley.

But it was all in vain. Ma got disoriented and found himself right back at the brick factory. The barking of a guard dog gave him away. The foremen beat him while screaming: “We’ll have to keep you chained up.” Ma begged on his knees for forgiveness, promising he’d never try to escape again.

Mercifully, it was all over a few weeks later. In early June, the police raided the factory and freed the laborers. They slapped 100 yuan in Ma's hand and told him to take the bus home. He did what the men in the blue uniforms told him.

Shady Job Agencies

Ma is only one of several slave laborers that China’s authorities have discovered working in brick factories in Shanxi and Henan provinces in recent weeks. Pictures of the raids showing confused and abused men and youths shocked the world. The photos showed a different China from the one normally seen in the West -- those portraying the unstoppable rise of an economic superpower. This China on display was an undeveloped country from a pre-industrial age. The proud hosts of the 2008 Olympic Games are now confronted with the ugly accusation that they’ve tolerated hordes of forced laborers for far too long -- modern slaves sold off as chattel by shady job agencies.

China has been cracking down on slave labor.

China has been cracking down on slave labor.

Chinese intellectuals like Hu Shuli, the editor in chief of the business magazine Caijing, are questioning whether the country -- with its poorly paid labor market, exploitation of migrant workers, and even outright slavery -- is denying many of its citizens “the right to freedom and dignity.” Has China after almost 58 years of communist rule completely lost its soul? “These incidents are truly ignominious for a civilized society,” says Jia Fenyong, a columnist for the state-run news agency Xinhua.

Those looking into the causes of the scandal have uncovered the unsavory shadow world existing alongside China’s remarkable economic rise in recent years. It is a realm of provincial cities hoping to join the country’s march of modernization and countless villages that have a few simple brick buildings, horrible roads, and inhabitants that can barely read and write.

It’s here that traditional family clans and mafia-like organizations have the say. Police have little power relative to local business magnates. No one is surprised when an official from a regional supervisory agency sells a recently freed young man from one brick factory to the next -- and charges him 300 yuan for the service.


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