The official Chinese media reported this week that police in Tianjin had detained five people suspected of abducting people with mental disabilities and forcing them to work in a car wash in the city.
The 11 workers received no salary for several months, were fed on scraps from the bosses’ table, and were beaten and burned with cigarettes if they tried to escape or contact relatives, the Beijing News reported on 3 December.
The case only came to light when one of the workers did manage to contact his brother, who later notified the police. The police raided the carwash on 21 November and, after reportedly making sure the victims received their promised salaries, sent them back to their home towns in neighbouring provinces.
The practice of simply sending kidnapped or trafficked workers back to their home towns is commonplace. Local authorities simply want to get rid of the problem as quickly as possible. However, the lack of remedial or protective measures means that these individuals are vulnerable to being trafficked again. Many were abducted at railway stations near their home town or tricked into working for the kidnappers with the promise of a good salary.
As CLB’s recent report on employment discrimination shows, people with learning difficulties or mental disabilities are very vulnerable to labour trafficking because of a lack of social support. Most cases of forced labour however occur in remote rural locations such as the brick kilns of Henan and Shanxi or Xinjiang. It is unusual for such a case to be uncovered in the centre of one China’s major cities. And the fact that slave labour could exist in downtown Tianjin indicates quite how ineffective local labour authorities are in monitoring and preventing even flagrant labour abuses.
Under the recently amended Criminal Law, the five detained face a maximum of ten years in jail if the authorities deem the case serious enough. Prior to the 2011 amendment, however, the maximum penalty for forced labour was three years imprisonment.