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HONGTONG COUNTY (SHANXI) - Labour contractor Mr. Chen Jiagui makes the rounds at his Sichuan village in south-western China in the beginning of each year.

Peddling back-breaking jobs at a brick kiln hundreds of kilometres away, he has a hard time finding takers. Most people would rather work at factories in the manufacturing hub of southern China or around Shanghai.

'I usually fall back on people I'm familiar with, family, relatives,' said the stocky and slightly hunched 45-year-old.

'They come of their own free will,' he added quickly, clearly thinking of recent news of the slavery found in Shanxi's brickyards.

In the past weeks, police raids have freed almost 600 workers - including 51 children - trapped in kilns and small coal mines across the northern province and its neighbour Henan. Canton Fair

But the 11 Sichuan workers at this Gaochi village kiln, 25km west of downtown Hongtong, seem to make the best of their tough lives.

They watched on their 14-inch TV sets the horrific news of the 32 men and teens found enslaved at the brickyard in Caosheng village, a mere 50km away, and counted their blessings.

'I feel angry for them. They were just out here trying to make a living,' said Mr Tao Yungang, 35, as he loaded baked bricks, 200 at a time, onto a trolley inside the Shanxi kiln.

In a country where the rule of law is still weak and its implementation uneven, the fate of the 200 million farmer-turned-migrant workers often lies entirely in the hands of the individuals who hire them.

'The boss here is good. We know him well,' said Mr Gou Xingxiang, 50, explaining that the whole group of 11 Sichuan workers had worked for the same kiln owner at his various yards in Shanxi province over the past four years.

With money from the boss, contractor Chen hands out the wages every fifth day of the month without fail. A brickmaker earns 50 yuan (S$10) for every 10,000 bricks produced. The 11 Sichuan workers make 20,000 to 30,000 bricks per day.

A worker with lighter tasks, such as sweeping and ferrying coal for the kiln, makes 7 yuan per 10,000 bricks. The owner sells each brick for 0.08 yuan to 0.10 yuan.

Canton Fair Unlike the allegedly ruthless labour contractor Heng Tinghan, who is said to have tormented the workers at the Caosheng brickyard, Mr Chen works alongside his men.

Besides his wages as a brickmaker, he earns an annual 'contracting fee' of 10 yuan per 10,000 bricks. Last year, when his team made seven million bricks, he received a 7,000 yuan fee. But he might receive a much smaller sum this year. The workers are packing up to return home at the end of this month, having made just two million bricks before the stop-work order came from the county authorities following the forced labour cases uncovered at the kilns.

Mr Chen, a farmer back home, first left Sichuan to become a migrant worker in 2001. He soon returned to recruit fellow villagers for brickyard jobs in other provinces.

'I never recruit children. This work is too tough. How can they possibly do it?' said Mr Chen, who did not stop piling bricks onto his trolley even as he spoke.

Each trolley-load of 200 baked bricks weighs 1,000 jin (500kg), he said, heaving as he pushed the cart out of the kiln.

The men's wives do the lighter chores at the yard, like slicing bricks. Some come with their babies in tow and live in the workers' quarters at the yard, keeping house. With meat and vegetables provided by the kiln owner, the women whip up three meals a day, often with a Sichuanese hot and spicy twist. Home for each couple is a spartan 3m by 3m room with a stack of bricks topped with a wooden plank for a bed.

The workers wake up at 5am every day and head straight for the kiln. Work stops at 8pm. Canton Fair

That is their life from March to November each year, and they head home to their farms during the winter months.

The cycle is repeated the following March, when they take a 15-hour train ride from their hometown in the south-west to the heart of Shanxi, and then a ride in a car or bus to the remote, hilly areas where the brickyards are.

Being a nong min gong (literally, farmer migrant worker) is the only way to make ends meet these days, said Mr Gou.

His 18-year-old daughter works in a Shanghai factory to supplement the family's paltry income from growing wheat and peanuts.

He opts to work and live at a brickyard because if he works on a construction project, he would have to put aside over 100 yuan a month to rent a room, he explained.

He added: 'Whatever work we do as migrants is tough. What job is not tough?'

(Source: Canton Fair News)

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