BEIJING (Reuters) - “Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves!” go the stirring words that open China’s national anthem.
But shocking images of men and children padlocked and brutalized in stifling brickworks have shown that even in this officially socialist nation, where workers are supposed to rule, slavery has secured a niche in the galloping market economy.
If, nearly six decades after the communist revolution, China can sustain even small-scale slavery, what of other parts of Asia where forced labor has deep roots that have long defied rights campaigns?
Observers of workers trapped in forced labor say economic growth does not necessarily spell the end of slavery, and small brick-makers across Asia often exploit trapped labour.
“The number-one predictor is corruption,” said Kevin Bales, an expert on the problem who is president of Free the Slaves, a Washington D.C.-based group.
“You can certainly see economic growth and slavery going hand in hand when that primary criterion of corruption is there.”
In north China’s Shanxi province, the centre of the national scandal, witnesses said paying off officials was normal in this region dotted with small coal mines and belching factories.
Bales, who has studied slavery in brickworks across Pakistan and India, said a similar brew of bribery and lax law enforcement also lubricated the grim business there.
More than three-quarters of the world’s estimated 12.3 million forced laborers are in Asia and the Pacific, where 9.5 million people are trapped by debt bondage, trafficking and other coercion, the International labor Organization estimates. Bales has estimated the global slave workforce at about 27 million.
Hotspots include India, Pakistan and Indonesia — nations where child labor remains common — as well as Myanmar, where the military regime oversees widespread forced labor.
An Indian campaigner said a swelling middle class there was in fact drawing more children into domestic servitude.
“Trafficking is growing,” said Kailash Satyarthi, founder of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, which seeks to rescue exploited children in farming, rug-making and other industries.
“There is disempowerment of the poorest of the poor. They are marginalized, they are losing their traditional forms of livelihood, and entering into modern forms of slavery.”
In Pakistan, too, child and bonded labor appeared to be spreading, not shrinking, as the economy grew, said Zulfiqar Shah of the Pakistan Institute of labor Education and Research.
“The informal economy is increasing and new people are getting trapped in debt bondage,” Shah said.
Making bricks is back-breaking work that uses cheap materials but needs constant labor to tend fires and move loads. Farmers in Shanxi said they were no longer willing to do such work, leaving bosses to seek cheap labor from poorer areas.
“This isn’t work locals want to do. They want to go home for meals and rest. And the wages are too low,” said Gao, a farmer who lived nearly next door to a kiln owned by Wang Bingbing, now detained after one worker died there and 31 were rescued.
Endemic corruption and competitive pressures have encouraged the spread of harsh exploitation and outright slavery throughout rural China’s brick industry, said Robin Munro, director of research for the China labor Bulletin in Hong Kong.
“Factory owners have been driving production costs down and slavery is a short-cut to that,” he said. “If you’re not doing it, your competitor down the road probably is.”
That theme was echoed in India, Pakistan and Nepal, where kiln owners have also sought to increase profits by turning to forced labor, said Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International in London, who has visited slave brickworks in Nepal.
But if the workers rescued from Shanxi were scarred and emaciated from their experiences, the houses of some of their captors appeared little better than the average in the dusty villages where kilns have sprung up.
Across Asia and other poorer regions, rural slave exploiters tend to be not much richer than their victims, said Bales.
“If you had a lot more money you’d just leave there,” he said. “It’s reflecting people who have got some power and are able to take advantages of the resources they have to exploit other people.”
Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New Delhi, Adhityani Arga in Jakarta, Robert Birsel in Islamabad