BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese police have captured a man accused of holding workers in virtual slavery, state media reported on Sunday amid a national uproar over teenagers and men forced to work in brutal, furnace-like brick kilns.
Heng Tinghan is accused of holding workers in a kiln in Hongtong county in the northern province of Shanxi. One worker died after being beaten by one of Heng’s helpers, and police rescued 31, thin and scarred.
Police caught Heng late on Saturday after a nationwide manhunt, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
He has become a central villain in a national drama over possibly hundreds or more teenage and adult “slaves” forced or cheated into grueling labor in kilns, mines and foundries across Shanxi and neighboring Henan province.
When caught in the central province of Hubei, Heng apologized for mistreating workers but denied blame for the death of the mentally impaired man, a Hubei newspaper reported.
“I felt it was a fairly small thing, just hitting and swearing at the workers and not giving them wages,” Heng said, according to the Shiyan Evening News. “The dead man had nothing to do with me.”
The scandal has tarnished the ruling Communist Party’s promises to build a “harmonious” society with improved rights and income for the nation’s hundreds of millions of poor farmers.
The China Youth Daily called the coercion a “shocking disgrace” exposing officials’ failure to enforce labor laws.
DOGS AND BEATINGS
“When a law is massively undercut in its implementation so that it becomes a worthless piece of paper, then it’s necessary to rethink the law itself,” the paper said.
State television has reported that owners of the primitive brick-making operations ran them like prisons with fierce dogs and beatings to deter escapes.
A sweeping police crackdown in Shanxi and Henan had so far freed 568 people from kilns and other work sites, including 22 under the age of 18 in Shanxi, Xinhua reported. Wang Bingbing, the owner of the kiln that Heng leased, was detained in late May.
Local news reports said Heng had coerced or cheated the workers to the site from March 2006, forcing them to work 16-hour days and live off mostly steamed bread.
President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have issued “instructions” on the scandal, state media have reported.
But this is not the first time brutality in Shanxi’s brick industry has stirred their concern. In 2003, Wen called for tough punishment after a teenage boy was trapped into working in a kiln in Yongji, Shanxi, media reported at the time.
By Saturday, Shanxi police had detained 25 people suspected of involvement in the virtual slave trade, Xinhua said.
But a Henan reporter who had helped expose the business accused officials of hampering parents’ efforts to find missing children.
“In our reporting, the biggest obstacle has been lack of cooperation from some authorities in Shanxi,” television reporter Fu Zhenzhong told the China Youth Daily.
“Some are still coming up with any number of ways to obstruct parents rescuing their children.”
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