'We come every night'
On a quiet river bend on the China-Vietnam border, a group of people clambered up a muddy bank. They had just glided across the river from the Vietnamese side in a longboat, guided by men on both banks signalling with flashlights.
The passengers scurried over to a group of men standing by their motorcycles, climbed aboard the bikes and disappeared into the night. Two Chinese police officers in uniform, stationed at a small post near the crossing point in the border town of Dongxing, watched impassively as they rode past.
"We come every night," said one young biker with spiky hair before he rode off. "Sometimes we carry (smuggled) goods into town. Sometimes we carry Vietnamese workers."
The bikers' illicit cargo on that late summer night last year was illegal labourers. They were headed on a 700-kilometre (440 miles) journey to the economic powerhouse of Guangdong. The province, filled with factories making goods for export, has been dubbed "the workshop of the world."
The smuggling of illegal workers from Vietnam across the 1,400-km (840-mile) border into China is growing. Labour brokers estimate that tens of thousands work at factories in the Pearl River Delta, which abuts Hong Kong. Workers from other Southeast Asian nations are joining them.
Visits to a half-dozen factory towns in southern China revealed the employment of illegal workers from Vietnam is widespread, and authorities often turn a blind eye to their presence. Workers from Myanmar and Laos were also discovered to be working in these areas.
Reuters found that employers supply these illegal workers with fake identity cards and sometimes confine them to factory compounds to keep them out of sight of the authorities.
Chinese human smuggling syndicates, known as "snakeheads", work with Vietnamese gangs to control the lucrative trade, workers and labour brokers in China said. The syndicates take a cut of the workers' monthly wages - up to $80 a month in some cases, according to one broker - and charge factory owners a fee.
Text: James Pomfret, Reuters