HONGTONG, China (Reuters) - China has promised a sweeping crackdown on a slave labor scandal in a poor part of the country where poverty and unbridled growth have made work abuses commonplace.
Following calls for action by top leaders, the Ministry of labor and Social Security pledged to send a team to central China, where state media have said up to 1,000 minors may have been forced to work in slave-like conditions in brick kilns.
The local authorities in Shanxi, one of two provinces involved, said they would punish government officials for dereliction of duty unless all of the abused workers were freed within 10 days.
But in this hard-scrabble corner of China, where power is often the key to resources and wealth, people also pointed to official complicity in the trapped workers' plights.
"The officials said that we were illegal and so they came for money but they didn't do any more than that," said Zhang Mei, the wife of one kiln owner detained by police.
"They wanted the money," she said from the confines of her home, just meters from the notorious kiln, where rooms once housing workers were strewn with ragged bedding covered in dust and scraps of steamed bread, probably their staple food.
Reports of abducted children have emerged as parents have spoken out about their desperate search for loved-ones.
Zhang Xiaoying, whose 15-year old son was tempted by the promise of fat wages just as the family battled to pay hefty medical bills, is one of the luckier parents today.
Her boy, from her native Henan, escaped just last week, after months toiling in a Shanxi kiln.
Asked how she felt when he returned, she said:
"I felt bad because I see he had suffered so much. He worked 16 hour days in the kiln on a meager diet of noodles and steamed bread," she said.
"He would have run away earlier but he had no money and they wouldn't give him any wages." Zhang asked that her son's name not be disclosed.
Villagers in Shanxi's Hongtong county described a mixture of poverty, opportunity and widespread indifference as behind this latest scandal.
A resources boom in this dusty corner of rural China has thrown up new opportunities for wealth, but also for exploitation of poor, often ill-educated farming families.
Many locals said they were unwilling to do the harsh work of making bricks and so bosses turned to people from even poorer parts of China to labor longer hours for little or no pay.
Some also said the same officials now presenting themselves as heroes for rescuing workers had long neglected conditions in the often unlicensed kilns.
Zhang said prime responsibility for abuses at the kiln in Hongtong lay with a sub-contractor, known as the "gang boss", who had found the workers and controlled them directly.
"We really didn't know they weren't getting money," Zhang told Reuters.
Xinhua later said Heng Tinghan, 42, was the focus of a nationwide manhunt.
Zhang, whose modest home had a wall hanging of late Communist helmsman Mao Zedong as one of its few decorations, said her family was mired in debt and being shunned by neighbors.
The snowballing scandal threatens to stain the ruling Communist Party's promises to build a more harmonious and just society.
Conditions for mostly migrant workers at kilns and privately-run mines across resource-rich central China have been far from ideal, as the Chinese media has exposed in recent days.
State television has reported owners of primitive brick kilns ran their operations like prisons in Shanxi and Henan provinces with fierce dogs and thugs who beat minors at will.
One owner accidentally killed a child with a shovel and buried the body at night, state TV said.
Some of the workers, mostly young males, were shown to have festering wounds on their black feet and around their waists, presumably from burns from the kilns where they worked without receiving any pay.
Xinhua said on Saturday that police had so far rescued 548 people from Shanxi and Henan following raids on brick kilns and iron and coal mines. It previously said as many as 120 suspects had been detained.
For some who were aware of the conditions at the Hongtong kiln, the unfolding details were par for the course in a nation where free-wheeling capitalism and extreme poverty have few limits, despite the ruling Communists' promises of liberation for laborers in a workers' paradise.
"They were dressed in rags, covered in mud and dust. I don't think I ever saw them change clothes," said Zhao Gulou, a local farmer who saw some of the workers try, but fail, to escape.
Asked how he felt about witnessing such conditions, he said:
"We didn't have any feelings, it's none of our business. It's up to the government."
(Additional reporting by Vivi Lin in Beijing and Nao Nakanishi in Hong Kong)