Recent revelations of slave labor in remote Chinese brick making facilities are surprising only for the fact that the overall story has taken so long to emerge. According to the state-owned media, more than 500 people have been freed from what are now being described as “illegal brick kilns” over the last several days.
500 people! 500 missing people!
This, more than the fact that slave labor was being utilized, is the part of the story that surprises me most. To be sure, a country of 1.3 billion people spread over a vast geographic area is going to have a difficult time implementing a rudimentary missing persons system. But it is difficult to imagine many other countries in the world where large numbers of people (and I think it is fairly obvious that there are many more than 500 people enslaved in brick and other factories) can go missing, only to be hidden away in remote manufacturing facilities.
Of course, if such a situation were to exist, it would certainly benefit from being protected by or affiliated with a government. And sure enough, even state-owned media is reporting that both factors were in play in the Shanxi brick factories.
Over the last five years, I’ve been in well over 100 Chinese factories, some private, some state owned, and some owned by local government units. With very little hesitation I can state that the very worst labor conditions are always – always – found in those operated by local government units. The reason for this is fairly straightforward: enforcement of China’s health, labor, and environmental laws are largely the responsibility of local governments, and those governments are typically uninterested in harming profit-making enterprises in which they have interests (I’ll leave it for another time to discuss the natured of those interests).
According to the state-owned media, the Chinese “feds” are definitely being called-in to fix this situation. In their wake, I have no doubt that the remote brick-making sector of Shanxi Province is about to be shut down, or at least severely curtailed. But I also have no doubt that the industry will be back in business with 18 months, just as soon as the feds get out of Shanxi Province.
This is the important point.
Americans tend to view China as a functioning, strong federal system much along the lines of their own. This couldn’t be more incorrect. The ability of China’s federal government to extend its administrative powers to the provinces and local government is minimal and mostly limited to extraordinary enforcement actions (some involving the military). In a recent post I described one of those recent actions – as described by a high government environment official – and its unraveling. Hopefully, things will turn out differently in Shanxi, but I’m not hopeful.
Anyway, I am still in Vietnam, and unlikely to be posting over the next couple of days.