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Cover-up of Child Labor Deaths in Hebei

March 2, 2005

Human Rights in China (HRIC) has been informed by a source in China of a cover-up in the workplace deaths of five child and juvenile workers.

According to sources in China, a man named Wang Wei, the owner of a private company in Luancheng County, Shijiazhuang City, Hebei Province, illegally employed a number of child laborers. Due to substandard conditions in the factory dormitory, five girls were found unconscious from inhaling charcoal fumes at the end of last year. Sources say that without checking if the girls were actually dead, Wang put them into coffins for cremation, with the result that two of the girls who were apparently still alive died of asphyxiation.

According to HRIC’s sources, Wang Wei is the proprietor of the Lihua Textile Factory in Xixuying Village near Shijiazhuang. He employed five girls ranging in age from 14 to 17 years old, who came from impoverished peasant families in a nearby village. Some of these girls had already been working for Wang for two years. On December 23, 2004 the girls were sleeping in a shared dormitory room measuring less than 10 square meters (approximately 90 square feet) when they were overcome by charcoal fumes. Upon discovering them unconscious, Wang did not call for medical assistance, but took them to a crematorium to quickly dispose of their remains. An employee of the crematorium noticed that the bodies of the girls were still warm and their limbs soft, and that no medical certificate accompanied their bodies, so he refused to accept the bodies. Wang and other factory managers then called in a barefoot doctor to certify that the girls were dead, after which they were placed into coffins for cremation.

Sources say that when the girls’ families heard of the matter, they insisted on viewing their daughters’ corpses, but were refused. The factory also insisted that the families make no further inquiries into the girls’ deaths as a condition of paying each family 15,000 yuan in compensation. However, the families still insisted on viewing the corpses, and four days later the factory finally acceded to their request. Upon viewing the corpses, the families were horrified to discover that at least two of the girls, 14-year-old Wang Yajuan and 17-year-old Wang Shimian, appeared to have been alive when they were placed in the coffins. Their faces were caked with vomit and tears, their noses had bled and their necks were swollen. Wang Shimian was found to have kicked through the cardboard lining of her coffin, and her body was twisted in apparent struggle.

The families, extremely angry with what they had seen, insisted on a formal medical examination of the corpses. In the meantime, the families of 70 other child laborers held a vigil for the dead girls on December 29. But around 11:00 that night, sources say, more than 100 local public security policy drove up in 20-odd cars and motorcycles and broke up the ceremony. The family members of the dead girls were taken to a welfare facility, where they were detained for one day and one night without food. The families were denied further access to their daughters’ corpses, and one family member, Liu Lianyang, was so badly abused by police that he had to be taken to the hospital for treatment.

In spite of the local government’s suppressive efforts, news of the tragedy has gradually leaked out and raised considerable concern in the community. Some news organizations in Shijiazhuang have attempted to report on the matter, but local authorities have denied them access. Sources say the local government pressured the parents to accept a total of only 70,000 yuan in compensation for the girls’ deaths as a condition for allowing the families to take the girls’ bodies. The families reluctantly accepted the lower compensation rather than allow the factory to retain possession of the bodies and destroy evidence. The girls have been buried in temporary graves, but the families worry that warmer weather will cause decay that will eliminate any evidence of wrongdoing.

According to HRIC’s sources, Luancheng County officials have closed their eyes to the existence of some 100 local factories employing child labor. At Wang Wei’s Lihua Textile Factory, children as young as 14 years old worked 12-hour days, from noon until midnight, in a poor environment and under conditions so strenuous that they collapsed into bed every night. In their poorly ventilated, unheated room, the girls warmed themselves in the dead of winter with charcoal burned in a metal bucket, setting the scene for tragedy.

“This tragic case presents a whole catalog of human rights abuses,” said HRIC president Liu Qing. “The incident is particularly egregious given that China recently submitted its initial and second periodic reports on its implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which will be discussed at the pre-sessional meetings of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in June. China should make a special effort to eradicate child labor, which anecdotal evidence such as this suggests is a serious problem throughout China. And since it appears that local authorities are only interested in covering up this particular case, law enforcement officials at the provincial level or higher should intervene and ensure that justice is done.”