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China Moves to End ‘Modern Slavery’

Mitch Moxley

BEIJING, Jan 14 2011 (IPS) - Authorities in remote Xinjiang province rescued a group of mentally ill men last month. The men had been sold by a shelter operator and forced to work in a factory. The rescue shone a light on the darkest side of China’s rapid economic growth – slavery.

Police arrested Li Xinglin, the boss of the building materials factory in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. He had attempted to flee after state media ran reports exposing the plant’s working conditions, according to Xinhua News Agency.

Reports said at least a dozen workers, eight of them mental disabilities, were sold to the factory to work without pay. Authorities said the workers were given no protective gear, forced to work during the winter when other factories suspended operations, and were fed the same food as the factory leader’s dog. Some of them had been held for four years.

Li Xinglin’s son Li Chenglong was also arrested, in Chengdu, capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province. He had fled to the region with 12 mentally ill workers. The workers were rescued and placed in government custody.

In January, three more people were detained in the case, according to official news reports. Zeng Lingquan and his wife ran a beggars’ shelter in Quxian country, Sichuan, and had allegedly sold mentally handicapped people to workplaces since 1993. Several officials tied to the case were fired from their jobs.

Zeng, a farmer who once served as an executive committee member of the Quxian Federation of Industry and Commerce, sold a number of workers to the Jiaersi Green Construction Material Chemical Factory in Xinjiang, and received salaries that were supposed to be paid to the workers. Officials said Zeng’s shelter was a front for a slavery ring.

Tales of modern slavery periodically make news in China, which last year overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy. While working conditions and salaries have generally improved for factory workers across the country as the economy has soared, experts say slavery of mentally ill workers and children remains a persistent problem.

In May 2009, police in Anhui province arrested ten men for allegedly enslaving more than 30 mentally handicapped people who had been forced to work at brick kilns. In 2007, hundreds of brick kiln slaves, many of them children or mentally handicapped, were freed in raids across northern China.

Reports of enslaved mentally ill workers have come from ten provinces since 2007, according to the China Association of Mentally Handicapped People. There have been 20 cases of mentally ill workers being killed, a Legal Daily report said.

Meng Weina, founder of the Beijing Huiling Community Services for People with Learning Disabilities, says mentally ill people are especially vulnerable in China, where the social security net is small and care generally falls into the hands of the family. When parents die, many mentally handicapped people have no one to care for them. In rural areas, where 70 percent of mentally disabled people live, there are virtually no organisations that offer support.

“We have seen so many cases of abduction,” Meng tells IPS, “but when they are reported to place, no one really cares.”

Liu Kaiming, labour researcher and executive director at the Shenzhen-based Institute of Contemporary Observation, says the root cause is imperfect social safety nets, inadequate laws and regulations protecting mentally ill people, and lack of punishment for officials who neglect their duties.

“I don’t think the central and local governments have done anything to protect mentally ill workers,” Liu tells IPS.

Meng says social services for mentally handicapped workers need to be improved. Support needs to reach China’s more remote regions as well, he says, instead of focusing on major centres such as Beijing.

After the publicity sparked by the brick kilns slavery reports, major revisions were made to laws governing children’s rights in China. New laws included mandated adequate sleep time as well as time for entertainment and sports.

But little appears to have been done to protect the rights of mentally ill workers. Last November Luis CdeBaca, senior advisor to the U.S. State Department, said in a visit to Beijing that China needed to improve its effort in the fight against “modern slavery” and better support forced labour and human trafficking victims. “The government itself cannot solve the problem of modern slavery,” CdeBaca said, according to a report in China Daily. “Instead, you have to have civil society working with government; the two working together to harness the power in a way that the victims find themselves in a better place.”

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