China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2015/Mar

Modern slavery

Each year on World Day of Peace the pope offers a message to the world. This year, on 1 January 2015, Pope Francis’ message was, No Longer Slaves, but Brothers and Sisters.

Pope Francis said, “Tragically, the growing scourge of man’s exploitation by man gravely damages the life of communion and our calling to forge interpersonal relations.”

The pope is reminding us of the good news that Jesus has freed us from the slavery of sin and invites us to accept this divine freedom, to live it out in our lives and to share it with all people.

He is urging people of all religions and cultures to unite to fight modern slavery and human trafficking as we all have a God-given right to be free. As of November 2014 there were 35.8 million people enslaved across the world (Global Slavery Index, 2014).

There are many kinds of slavery in every country. We can learn about this by consulting the Global Slavery Index. Starting with China, the index estimates that there are 3,241,400 people in modern slavery in China.

The world’s most populous country has experienced rapid modernisation and urbanisation over the last decade, which has led to a dramatic reduction in absolute poverty from 26 per cent in 2007 to seven per cent in 2012.

Rapid social change

This rapid social change correlates with large flows of internal migrants moving around the country in search of work.

An estimated 268.9 million Chinese migrated internally for work in 2013, flowing from rural to urban areas and from western and central regions to the Special Economic Zones on the eastern and southern coasts.

There have been reports of modern slavery within China in a range of industries including construction, manufacturing, mining, brick-making, restaurants and the domestic and personal care-givers sector.

There are issues with trafficking of babies under the guise of legal adoptions, and of women and young girls for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation.

Discriminated against groups such as migrant workers, the disabled, ethnic and religious minorities, and children are among the most vulnerable to modern slavery.

There are recent reports of forced begging among the hearing impaired and the mute, and forced labour among those with mental disabilities.

Largest group of migrants

The Chinese comprise the largest migrant population in history; top destinations for international migrants include Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Japan and various parts of Africa.

An estimated 90 per cent of Chinese migrant workers move via irregular channels where labour recruiters associated with crime triads are known to force migrants into debt bondage and other forms of coercion.

The Chinese diaspora is a pull factor for irregular Chinese migrants and can be both a source of protection and also exploitation for new migrants.

The abolition of the re-education through labour system in late 2013 was a positive step forward for the Chinese government response to modern slavery.

However, almost no information is publicly available to help assess progress and recent reports suggest that unrecognised detention facilities known as black jails detain inmates without due process and force them to work.

The detention of a movie star, Huang Haibo, in May 2014, triggered a nationwide debate over another system of re-education detention centres (

Workers not paid

A recent article in the China Daily shows how workers are not getting paid on time. The frequent tragedies involving migrant workers’ seeking their wage arrears, mostly at year-end, reveal the lack of a mechanisms to ensure the effective implementation of the laws and regulations protecting the vulnerable group’s rights and interests.

After a failed attempt to get the wage arrears of her father and other migrant workers, a 14-year-old jumped to her death from the 16th floor of an under-construction building in Jizhou, Hebei province in northern China, on January 19.

Her father and his fellow workers from Sichuan province, southwestern China, worked for a property developer in Jizhou from the beginning of 2012 to May 2013 and their accumulated wages amounted to about 900,000 yuan ($1.13 million).

They had made several attempts to get their wage arrears before the tragic incident. The 14-year-old girl’s death came just days after a woman from Henan province, central China, was beaten to death in a police station in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, for demanding her wage arrears.

Not surprisingly, the girl’s father and the other migrant workers were paid their wage arrears after the intervention of local authorities and the media storm over the girl’s death.

It is indeed sad that a man gets his hard-earned wages only after his daughter sacrifices her life.

It is even sadder to know the existence of an unwritten rule – migrant workers in many cases can get their arrears in wages only after a sensational event or terrible tragedy occurs (China Daily, January 24).

Another case of slavery is 74-year-old Hu Deming, from Ruzhou in Henan, when he was unable to retire, because the coal mine where he worked lost his employment records, The Dahe Daily reports.

Hu said that when he visited the Ministry of Social Security in 2000 after reaching retirement age, he was told that the documents were lost, so he could not receive a pension. He has struggled to get by with odd jobs ever since.

Recently I read of another case regarding pensioners. Many pensioners have to go to Beijing to collect their pensions and face the ordeal of waiting for many days at the government office before they see an official.

These pensioners come from extremely far off places in China and to find a place to stay in Beijing is not easy. There was a photo of a couple of pensioners sitting and sleeping under a bridge for days. The article did not say whether or not the pensioners ever received their due.

In cases of a dispute over wage payment, migrant workers undergo complicated and time-consuming procedures, such as applying to government departments for mediation and/or arbitration, before filing a case in court against their employer.

The fear of such tedious and complicated procedures forces many to take extreme measures to get their wage arrears. The government in recent years has taken some practical measures to help migrant workers.

The amendment to the Criminal Law, which took effect on 1 May 2011, stipulates that employers deliberately denying workers’ wages could face charges and up to seven years in prison (China Daily, January 24).

Pope’s message

Pope Francis said, “Today, as in the past, slavery is rooted in a notion of the human person which allows him or her to be treated as an object.

“Whenever sin corrupts the human heart and distances us from our creator and our neighbours, the latter are no longer regarded as beings of equal dignity, as brothers and sisters sharing a common humanity, but rather as objects.

“Whether by coercion or deception, or by physical or psychological duress, human persons created in the image and likeness of God are deprived of their freedom, sold and reduced to being the property of others. They are treated as means to an end.”

Pope Francis has said that we have a shared commitment to ending slavery, but considering the reality of human trafficking, illegal trafficking of migrants and other acknowledged forms of slavery, one has the impression that they occur within a context of general indifference.

The pope added, “Sadly, this is largely true, yet I would like to mention the enormous and often silent efforts which have been made for many years by religious congregations, especially women’s congregations, to provide support to victims.

“These institutes work in very difficult situations, dominated at times by violence, as they work to break the invisible chains binding victims to traffickers and exploiters.

“Those chains are made up of a series of links, each composed of clever psychological ploys, which make the victims dependent on their exploiters. This is accomplished by blackmail and threats made against them and their loved ones, but also by concrete acts such as the confiscation of their identity documents and physical violence.

Religious congregations

“The activity of religious congregations is carried out in three main areas: in offering assistance to victims, in working for their psychological and educational rehabilitation, and in efforts to reintegrate them into the society where they live or from which they have come.

“This immense task, which calls for courage, patience and perseverance, deserves the appreciation of the whole Church and society. Yet, of itself, it is not sufficient to end the scourge of the exploitation of human persons.

“There is also need for a threefold commitment on the institutional level: to prevention, to victim protection and to the legal prosecution of perpetrators.

“Moreover, since criminal organisations employ global networks to achieve their goals, efforts to eliminate this phenomenon also demand a common and, indeed, a global effort on the part of various sectors of society.

Pope Francis is asking us to respect all people, to treat them justly and to love them. Keep on loving each other as brothers (and sisters).

Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.

A Happy Lunar New Year
from the Holy Spirit Study Centre