Slave-labor boss detained amid national shock

Updated: 2007-06-17 16:19


Tale of slave labor

Investigations have thrown up some tragic facts like those of 17-year-old Zhang Wenlong. He says he was drugged before being abducted from Zhengzhou Railway Station and "shipped" to the kiln in Hongtong. It was a real "prison" from where "it was impossible to escape There were musclemen and six ferocious dogs guarding the kiln especially to prevent anyone from escaping."

The working conditions in the kiln were "hellish", and they were forced to work up to 16 hours a day. Just over a month after being forced into the "hell", Zhang burnt his hands seriously when he was ordered to carry bricks that hadn't even cooled down. That was on April 26. Let alone being taken to a hospital for treatment, he wasn't even given proper medicines; he was given expired medicines. The "overseer" told him to use "traditional" treatment - applying yellow clay on the wound.

Zhang describes his daily life in the kiln thus: Waking up at 5 am; having some cabbage, radish and cold buns as food; starting work almost immediately; slogging it out the whole day and late into the night; returning to bed around midnight. They were not allowed to go to the toilet at night, and didn't even get water to wash their face, let alone have a bath. They slept on bricks with doors locked from the outside. Strong wire nets were fastened to the windows to turn the rooms into prison cells.

Heng Tinghan (L)), accused of holding workers in virtual slavery in a kiln in Hongtong country in northern province of Shanxi, speaks to a report after being caught in Shiyan, central China's Hubei Province on Saturday, June 16, 2007. [Shiyan Evening News]

What about wages? Zhang says he had been promised a monthly pay of 800 yuan ($105) but got nothing.

"You cannot imagine the cruelty unless you've been there," says Fu Zhenzhong, a reporter with Henan provincial television station who went to Hongtong with some parents looking for their lost children. There were at least 1,000 children working as slave laborers in the kilns, Fu says.

One of the persons who went in search of their kids was Yang Aizhi from Henan. It was she who sent a petition to Premier Wen Jiabao on June 11 that read: "Please save our children who have been abducted by devils and are living in hell." About one week before the 46-year-old mother sent the letter, some 400 men in Henan who believed their children had been abducted and sold as slave workers to kilns in neighboring Shanxi sought help online.

They said they had "spent all their money and risked their lives to go deep into the mountains looking for their children, with the youngest 8". But not many succeeded in seeing their kids because of the heavy security in the kilns and the indifference of the local police. Many owners ran the kilns, as Zhang says, like prisons with ferocious dogs guarding their boundaries. Musclemen beat up and tortured the laborers who tried to escape to instill fear among the others.

Only two of the six parents who initiated the rescue operation could free their kids. One of the children, a 17-year-old boy, had to be carried on a stretcher because his feet were seriously burnt.

Yang began the search for her 16-year-old son as soon as he went "missing" on March 8 from Zhengzhou, capital of Henan. After visiting hundreds of Internet cafes and issuing thousands of missing person notices, she had almost given up hope when she got a call from another parent. The woman told her that her son had just escaped from a brick kiln in Shanxi, and Yang should look for hers there.

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