Disabled Enslaved in China’s Brick Factories

Individuals with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities in China have been, and are being, enslaved to work in horrific and inhumane conditions. Says the February 26th Los Angeles Times

In an adrenaline-paced economy with a chronic shortage of manual laborers, ruthless recruiters often prey on China’s mentally disabled. The worst offenders work with the brick kilns that are feeding a seemingly insatiable appetite for the new apartment complexes and malls cropping up around the countryside. 

“The brick factories can never get as many workers as they need. The work is heavy and a lot of people don’t want to do it,” said Ren Haibin, the former manager of one of several brick factories where Liu said he had worked. “Possibly the mentally disabled can be intimidated and forced to work…. They are timid and easier to manage.” 

At least a dozen such cases have been noted by the non-governmental Enable Disability Studies Institute in Beijing. 

Young women have been sold by psychiatric hospitals as sexual partners and wives; mentally disabled young men have been imprisoned as forced laborers in coal mines and brick factories. In 2008, a brick factory owner beat a young man to death for an escape attempt. In December, Chinese authorities rescued 11 workers who had been sold by a supposed charitable organization for the disabled to a brick factory more than 1,000 miles away.

Workers in the factories tell of not being allowed to bathe more than once a year and being fed ‘the same food as the boss’ dog.’  

Zhang Wei, Enable Disability Studies Institute’s director, says that, when someone with intellectual or other disabilities disappears, police don’t exert much of an effort to find them and, even if they are found, their reports are little valued due to their cognitive and other impairments. Says Zhang:

“This is not like when a child goes missing. Police will just assume they’ve run away,” Zhang said. Some families, he says, won’t even bother to report. “They might feel that they’ve been relieved of the burden.”

The Los Angeles Times describes the nightmare of two families who did not feel this way at all. 30-year-old Liu Xiaoping ‘comes from a loving family who occupy the ground floor of a shabby apartment in southern Xian, where his father sells remedies to people too poor to afford a doctor.’ He was enslaved for ten months in a brick factory in the Chinese countryside:


His hands are as red as freshly boiled lobster from handling hot bricks from a kiln without proper protective gloves. On the backs of his legs, third-degree burns trace the rectangular shape of bricks, a factory foreman’s punishment for not working fast enough. Around his wrists, ligature marks tell of the chains used to keep him from running away at night.

Liu was found wandering in the small town of Gaoling, north of Xian, on Dec. 22, 10 months after his family reported him missing. He was wearing the same clothing as when he’d disappeared in February, but the trousers were glued to the festering wounds on his legsand the gangrene of his frostbitten feet stank through the gaping holes in his shoes.

Despite his injuries and an intellectual impairment, he was able to tell how he’d been tricked by a woman who bought him a bowl of soup and promised him the equivalent of $10 per day, good wages for manual work in rural China.

Instead, he became a slave.

Liu was fortunate to be reunited with his family, who are now trying to raise money for skin grafts for him. 

62-year-old farmer He Zhimin has been searching for his 30-year-old son He Wen since June 2 of last year. The younger He had been ‘psychologically troubled since his late teens, when he’d suffered a breakdown after failing an exam’ and was unable to hold a job. He was able to work some, unloading trucks. He disappeared after talking to a women who offered him a job that—similarly to the women who enticed Liu Xiaoping to work in the brick factory— would provide ‘more than $10 a day, meals and a free pack of cigarettes.’

His father has yet to find him and spends the days searching the countryside with a photo of his son, asking people if they’ve seen him. The Los Angeles Times details how He Zhimin’s search for his son led to Liu Xiaoping being found and brought back to his family; from looking at a photo of He Wen, Liu was able to identify him as one of the eleven disabled workers imprisoned with him. But He Wen’s whereabouts remain unknown.

The photo I chose to illustrate this post is of the countryside around the city of Xian in central China. Is He Wen somewhere there and what kind of horrific treatment has he suffered? Or has he been moved to some other part of the vastness that is China—and will he ever make it back home again, and in what condition?

Photo by  gwydionwilliams.


Laura Saxon
.4 years ago

That's terrible! China really needs to treat their disabled persons better.

jane richmond
jane richmond6 years ago

Cheap labor strikes again!

Deb Justice
Deb Justice6 years ago

Yes, It's sad when most of the world sits back and watches this go on and not do anything about it. Mentally ill people have feelings, just like the rest of us. They have needs and wants, and to imprison them is a crime on humanity.

Alice H.
Alice Hendry6 years ago

Again where are the legal systems? This should not be happening but it does everywhwere.

Aoife L.
Aoife L6 years ago

oh my god this is just horrific! It's hard to believe how cruel people can be to those less abled than them!

Shelly Peterson
Shelly Peterson6 years ago

Question: Dr. Chew, What can we do to help? Please submit an article on some solutions /suggestions, etc. pertaining to this article. Thankyou for helping to make us aware, empower us with more knowledge so me can help empower our fellow human beings. The push is on! I'll be looking for your update each day. Thankyou!

Mara C.
Past Member 6 years ago

And people have the nerve to come to the US and complain about everything. Maybe we should deport them to China!

Gale T.
Gale T6 years ago

This country is sick. And we support them.

Julie W.
Julie W6 years ago

Is there ANY good news coming out of China? Haven't heard any lately.

gerlinde p.
gerlinde p6 years ago

it`s disgusting, no ome should be treated as a slave in this day and age.