The governor of the Chinese province shaken by a slave labor scandal publicly apologized on Friday, as officials described farmers, children and mentally impaired people snatched into a grim rural underworld.
Yu Youjun, chief of Shanxi in the country's north, expressed his apologies to brother migrant workers and their families who suffered harm, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
His words did not augur well for his political prospects.
As the province governor, I cannot shirk responsibility.
His gesture followed weeks of national uproar over hundreds of farmers, teenagers and children forced or cheated into exhausting, often unpaid work in brick kilns and other rural worksites, enduring beatings, some fatal.
So far Shanxi police have rescued 359 workers from the scorching brickworks, including 12 children and nine whose age was being checked, Xinhua reported on Friday, citing police. About half the victims were coerced to kilns, and the others were cheated, officials said.
The report did not give the children's ages, but Chinese laws define those younger than 16 as child laborers.
Among the rescued were also 65 mentally impaired people, including 15 whose identity and homes could not be determined.
Police in neighboring Henan province, where many victims came from, have rescued more than 200 other workers.
Yu's gesture appeared unlikely to douse public and media anger over the exploitation and the officials who ignored it or even took part.
A letter claiming to represent parents of 400 minors possibly trapped in slave-like work urged the government to intensify rescue efforts, the China Daily reported.
The slavery case that caused a great stir in the country is only the tip of the iceberg, the paper quoted the parents as saying. Thousands of laborers are still suffering and in pain. Please save our children!
The parents, mostly from rural Henan, posted an earlier letter online after being ignored by police and spending their savings on a mostly fruitless search for children they said had been sold into slavery.
One of the children rescued was an 8-year-old working unpaid alongside his father, Xinhua reported.
Police detained two labor inspectors on Thursday for taking a 17-year-old working illegally in one brick kiln and introducing him to another one, according to Xinhua reports.
Official oversight of small factories, mines and worksites has basically been neglected and out of control, Xinhua quoted governor Yu as saying.
By Friday, Shanxi police had detained 35 people for involvement in the abuses, 10 of whom had been formally arrested, the state news agency said. Police were hunting another 20.
What this shows is that local governance is in a terminal state of corruption in these areas, said Robin Munro of the China Labour Bulletin in Hong Kong, which has documented abuses in brickworks and mines across Shanxi.
In the coal industry, where thousands die in accidents each year, pay-offs to officials were entrenched, Munro said.
What we're seeing with slave labour is the bottom of a whole spectrum of abuses that affect the industry as a whole.