An Arizona woman’s shopping discovery is the latest instance in a string of reports involving notes penned by Chinese labor prisoners that have purportedly been found inside U.S. goods.
According to KVOA-TV, which first reported the story, Christel Wallace found a note written in Chinese inside a purse she bought at a Walmart near Tucson. A published translation of the note read as follows:
Inmates in the Yingshan Prison in Guangxi, China are working 14 hours daily with no break/rest at noon, continue working overtime until 12 midnight, and whoever doesn’t finish his work will be beaten. Their meals are without oil and salt. Every month, the boss pays the inmate 2000 yuan, any additional dishes will be finished by the police. If the inmates are sick and need medicine, the cost will be deducted from the salary. Prison in China is unlike prison in America, horse cow goat pig dog (literally, means inhumane treatment).
Walmart has declined to comment in response to queries regarding their suppliers (in China or elsewhere), but the company’s national media relations director, Ragan Dickens, sent us a statement regarding Wallace’s discovery:
We’re making contact with the customer and appreciate her bringing this to our attention. With the information we have, we are looking into what happened so we can take the appropriate actions.
Walmart has also been criticized by the advocacy group China Labor Watch, which has accused the company of exploiting workers. The group’s executive director, Li Qiang, told us on 2 May 2017 that it is rare for prison laborers to attempt to communicate their situation for fear of punishment. Speaking through a translator, Qiang told us that the company submits production contracts to factories with a low budget:
Regular factories can’t afford such [a] low budget to produce the products. Usually what happens after is Walmart contracts with [a] prison that will accept the low budget to produce its products.
Dickens provided a separate statement regarding Qiang’s accusation, saying:
We care that our products are sourced responsibly and transparently, and we take these allegations seriously. We require from our suppliers that all labor in their supply chains is voluntary. It is false that Walmart does any labor contracting from prisons.
While the author of the letter Wallace discovered has not been identified, similar notes have been found in purchases from other major U.S. retailers. In September 2012, a New York City woman discovered a handwritten note pleading for help inside a shopping bag she bought at Saks Fifth Avenue.
The person who wrote that letter was identified as Tohnain Emmanuel Njong, a Cameroonian national who was imprisoned under fraud charges in the city of Qingdao at the time he wrote it. It read in part: “We are ill-treated and work like slaves for 13 hours every day producing these bags in bulk in the prison factory.” Njong was released in December 2013.
A month after Njong’s letter was discovered, an Oregon woman reported finding a prisoner’s letter inside a box of Halloween decorations she bought at Kmart. The letter asked anyone who found it to notify the World Human Right Organization, adding, “Thousands people here who are under the persecution of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”
A 47-year-old Chinese national who asked to be identified only as Zhang told the New York Times in 2013 that he wrote the Kmart letter while imprisoned inside the Masanjia labor camp, saying it was one of about 20 notes he secretly wrote while serving a two-year sentence:
For a long time I would fantasize about some of the letters being discovered overseas, but over time I just gave up hope and forgot about them.
Of course, it’s always possible that at least some notes of this nature are not on the level and/or are being inserted into products after their arrival in the U.S. and not during the manufacturing process in China.