Chinese police have launched a nationwide manhunt for the owner of a factory believed to have used mentally disabled people as slave labor after he fled with a number of his workers, official media said on Tuesday.
Authorities in China's troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang had shut down a construction materials factory believed to be staffed by mentally disabled slave labor, according to local reports.
Eleven workers at the Jiaersi Green Construction Co. in Xinjiang's Toksun county put in long hours, suffered regular beatings, and were given the same food as dogs, the Beijing News reported on Tuesday.
The scandal comes just three years after thousands of workers were found to have been enslaved in brick kilns in the northern province of Shanxi.
Some of the workers had been working for up to four years without being paid a cent. Workers who tried to run away were often caught and beaten, the paper said.
Officials in southwestern Sichuan province's Qu county said factory owner Li Xinglin was believed to be in hiding in Sichuan after he fled the factory on Sunday evening, taking about a dozen mentally disabled workers with him.
Qu county Party secretary Yang Jin was quoted as saying by China's official Xinhua news agency that local authorities had detained the owner of a local shelter for the mentally disabled suspected of selling those in his care to Li, who claimed to have paid an agency for them.
"The factory in Toksun County has been shut down," Yang was quoted as saying by Xinhua.
Wife in custody
Yang said that a police and county government investigation team from Sichuan had also been sent to the Jiaersi Green Construction Material Chemical Factory in Toksun.
Police from Toksun were helping Sichuan police with the manhunt for Li, whose wife is currently in police custody, he said.
The 6,700 square-meter (72,120 square feet) Jiaersi facility started operation in July 2006, manufacturing talcum powder and quartz sand, Xinhua said.
The story was first reported by the local media after reporters received a tip-off on Dec. 10.
"Reporters from Xinjiang Metropolis News were tipped off that Jiaersi was using mentally ill workers, and went to the factory and interviewed the owner about pollution as a foil to view the conditions there," the agency said.
Similar plants are common in the area, and usually hire workers during the summer months at a rate of 150 yuan per day, local reports said.
But the Xinjiang Metropolis News found that "workers at Jiaersi worked all year round without pay", Xinhua said.
The reporters who visited Jiaersi said the floor of the workshop was covered with thick dust, but workers had no masks.
Li said during the interview that the workers came from a shelter "for beggars" in Qu county, whom he hired through an aid agency run by the now detained Zeng Lingquan.
Qu county officials said the center had no operating license.
Various questions have been raised over the latest scandal.
“All such activities should be under the supervision of various branches of the government," said Liu Kaiming, labor expert and director of the Shenzhen-based Institute of Contemporary Observation.
"For example, was it (the factory) registered with the government? If not, it should not be allowed to exist. If it is officially registered, did the government do any on-site inspections? Had there been routine inspections, the problem could easily have been detected,” Liu said.
Liu Xiaoyuan, Beijing-based lawyer, said: “I see they did not wear any protective gear, not even the most basic protective gear such as masks.
"They were treated like animals. People should be shocked that such things could happen in this day and age…”
Thousands 'forced to work'
In 2007, ordinary Chinese were shocked by reports that thousands of people were forced to work in brick kilns in the provinces of Henan and Shanxi, where they were subjected to regular beatings and near-starvation.
A parliamentary investigation has since found that some 53,000 migrant workers had been employed in more than 2,000 illegal brick kilns in Shanxi alone.
Slavery cases continue to be reported around China from time to time, including a case in northern Hebei province in May, where police rescued 34 people forced to work at a brick kiln.
Eleven people were detained for "using methods such as beating, electrocuting, intimidating, and restrictions on freedom, to force migrant workers to engage in heavy manual labour," the Yanzhao Metropolis Daily said at the time.
Reported by Tang Qiwei for RFA's Mandarin service. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie.