Lawyers' group calls for anti-slavery law

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 July, 2007, 12:00am

Forced-labour legislation cannot bring justice for kiln workers, association claims

The mainland's biggest professional legal body has urged the National People's Congress to introduce a new criminal charge for slavery after revelations last month that children and men were coerced to work in inhuman conditions in Shanxi's brick kilns without pay.

The Constitution and Human Rights Committee of the government-backed All-China Lawyers' Association sent a letter to the National People's Congress Standing Committee on June 28, saying the existing forced-labour charge did not adequately cover the nature and significance of the culprits' actions.

The rights committee said a new charge with tougher penalties had to be introduced to stamp out modern-day slavery, the Procuratorial Daily reported yesterday.

'We are making this recommendation because the legal web is not woven tightly enough, and the current criminal law has no regulations on slavery,' the newspaper quoted rights committee member Wu Ge as saying.

Mr Wu could not be reached for comment yesterday.

In the report, Mr Wu said none of the existing criminal legislation covered the crimes in Shanxi.

For example, the forced labour provisions under the Labour Law applied only to a legally established work unit and therefore left individuals and illegal kiln owners outside the scope of the legislation.

Mr Wu said the sentences for forced labour charges were too lenient because serious violations would result in just a maximum of three years' prison, or, in cases where children were involved, up to seven years behind bars.

The charge of trafficking of women and children also did not entirely fit because most workers trafficked in Shanxi were male adults. The kidnapping charge also did not apply since no extortion was involved, Mr Wu said.

'[This type of action] is a serious and vicious violation of human rights, and its threat to society is much more serious than common illegal detention, intentional harm and forced labour,' Mr Wu said.

The arrested suspects - owners of the illegal brick kilns or guards hired to prevent workers from escaping - are facing charges of illegal detention and intentional harm.

The committee proposed that a new charge should apply in cases where victims were coerced into work through 'violence or threat of violence, cheating, mental and financial control', and for benchmark sentence terms to be raised to five years. In serious cases, the sentence should be up to life imprisonment and the confiscation of property.

But the proposal has been controversial, with some questioning whether it was necessary and rational to have a new charge under the name of an archaic crime.

China University of Politics and Law professor Wang Shunan said the intention behind the new charge was good, but people might confuse it with the slavery system of feudal times.

He also said criminal laws should include only crimes that had a long-term and widespread application.

'This is fundamentally a management problem,' Professor Wang said. 'We should not rely on criminal law to combat all problems.'

He said it was more important that workers were aware of their rights.