The glaring need for greater vigilance against labour trafficking in China

15 December 2010
Once again the authorities have reacted with remarkable alacrity to an appalling case of labour rights abuse, after, and only after, it has been exposed in the Chinese media.

Within days of the Xinjiang Metropolitan Daily’s report on a factory that was using the mentally disabled as slave labour, the factory owner and his son had been arrested, along with the labour trafficker who allegedly sold the workers to the factory. The workers had been rescued and placed in care, and the trafficker’s “Beggars Adoption Agency” in Sichuan’s Qu county had been closed down, the official media reported.

However, the China Daily also quoted government officials in Qu county as saying that since 1996 the labour trafficker, Zeng Lingquan, had sold more than 70 people with mental disabilities to work in factories across China.

Zeng’s “agency” had been operating under these officials noses in a village in the county for 15 years, while the Jiaersi Green Construction Material Chemical Factory in Xinjiang had been in business for the last five years. And in all this time, local government officials and police did nothing. Indeed, the local police in Toksun county initially told the Xinjiang Metropolitan Daily they could do nothing because the factory had a legitimate labour agreement with the Sichuan civil affairs department.

The response of the authorities in Xinjiang and Sichuan is sadly typical of government officials across the country; years of inaction, or even collusion with the perpetrators of labour abuses, followed by a flurry of activity once those abuses are exposed and become a national scandal. Nearly 55,000 readers registered their anger and indignation (愤怒) when the Xinjiang story appeared on, and the authorities clearly felt compelled to act.

It goes without saying that the authorities should have been more vigilant about what was happening in their backyard, and taken a more proactive stance in dealing with such flagrant abuses. But they also need to do far more in the aftermath of such tragedies. Instead of just punishing the guilty and rescuing the victims, the authorities should ensure that those subject to forced labour are properly taken care of.

The victims should be given psychological counseling and treatment, and every effort should be made to rehabilitate them back into society, including reuniting them with their family and ensuring that the family has all the resources and support it needs to look after the victim.

Moreover, in this case, the victims who were forced to work long hours in freezing temperatures crushing rocks into sand and other building materials should be given thorough medical examinations, and treated for any injuries and illnesses they sustained. In particular, the workers should get lung examinations to determine if they are suffering from silicosis after breathing in silica dust from the rocks. If so, they should be provided with long-term medical care and a disability pension.
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