The children, some as young as 8, worked in brick kilns for 16 hours a day with meagre food rations. They were guarded by fierce dogs and thugs who beat their prisoners at will.
Many were abducted right off the streets of cities in the region and sold to factories and mines for as little as 400 yuan (£27). The unfolding scandal, involving negligent law enforcement and even collusion between government officials and slave masters, burst into the open this week.
They lived in squalid conditions with many adult workers, sleeping on filthy quilts on layers of bricks inside the brickworks, with the doors sealed from the outside with padlocks and the windows barred with pieces of wood.
Many children had festering wounds on their black feet and around their waists, apparently from burns. Some were even beaten to death by their guards.
Some 35,000 police have raided 7,500 kilns in Henan and Shanxi provinces in central China and rescued 468 people. Local officials said that 250 people had been arrested. They said the number of children forced to work in the kilns could rise to more than 1,000.
The abuses came to light only after 400 parents of missing children posted a letter on the internet pleading for official attention to their plight.
Filmed by television reporters from Henan province who accompanied the parents into the kilns to try to find their missing sons, several boys stood dazed and almost mute.
Asked if he wanted to go home, one boy gripped his filthy shirt and sobbed: “I want to. I want to.”
Zhao Yanbing, a foreman who fled a brickworks where 31 men were rescued a few days ago, described on state television how he had beaten a man in his late fifties for not working hard enough. “His performance was so bad, so I thought that I would frighten him a bit. When I raised the shovel over him I never thought that he would get up and confront me, so I slammed the shovel down on his head.” The man never got up again.
The revelations have sparked nationwide disgust. The Polit-buro, the Communist Party’s top decision-making body, sent a team of officials to Shanxi yesterday to investigate.
The People’s Daily, mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, said: “How could officials in the area have connived with such audacious and appalling behaviour to allow this situation to arise under their very eyes?” Parents of missing boys have complained repeatedly directly to government offices in Henan and Shanxi.
Yuan Cheng said that his 16-year-old son disappeared on March 28 while training to install steel window frames at the Golden Port construction site in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province. He told The Times: “When Yuan Xueyu went missing I felt numb. But now I’m even more worried because if I can’t find him when there is so much public attention, then there is no hope.”
He had joined 100 other parents at sit-down protests outside government and police offices in Henan. “They just ignored us. But the lower-level police must be protecting these illegal factories and that’s why it’s so difficult to search.”
Robin Munro, of the China Labour Bulletin, based in Hong Kong, said: “My impression is that this is not a common problem, but this kind of thing by definition is off-screen and makes me wonder just how widespread this is. It is one more sign among several of increasing lawlessness in China.”
One mother has been more fortunate than Mr Yuan. After seeing footage on Henan television, she contacted local reporters saying she thought she had seen her missing son. They accompanied her to a brickworks whose owner said all his workers were volunteers. But loading bricks beside a kiln was her missing son. She flung her arms around the teenager and burst into tears. “I never thought I would see him alive again,” she sobbed hysterically. The boy, Zhang Daohu, looked stunned and dazed.
Overworked and underpaid
A quarter of Fanglin village’s children were killed in 2001 when their elementary school exploded. Only then did the rest of the world discover that the school, in the remote mountain village in Jianxi province, had been turned into a fireworks factory using children as free labour
Merchandise for the 2008 Beijing Olympics is produced using child labourers working 13-hour days for minimal wages, according to a report released this month. The publication, by an alliance of world trade unions, said that official Olympic caps, bags and stationery were manufactured by children as young as 12
Seventy middle school students were rescued by authorities in Ningbo last summer when it was discovered that they were employed in a grape cannery under the guise of a “work-study” programme