Once again, a note purportedly written by a Chinese prison laborer has been discovered by an American shopper.
A reporter for online media outlet Vox recently traveled to the prison named in the letter, forcing Walmart—where the shopper bought the product with the hidden note enclosed—to come to terms with problems in its supply chain.
In March 2017, Christel Wallace of Arizona found a piece of paper folded up at the bottom of a maroon-colored handbag she bought from a local Walmart months ago.
The letter was written in Chinese. It said: “Inmates at the Yingshan Prison in Guangxi, China work 14 hours a day and are not allowed to rest at noon. We have to work overtime until midnight. People are beaten for not finishing their work. There’s no salt and oil in our meals. The boss pays prisoners 2,000 yuan every month. The food is all consumed by the prison guards. Sick inmates who need medicine get their pay deducted. Being imprisoned in China cannot be compared to a horse, cow, goat, pig, or dog in America.”
After Wallace’s daughter-in-law, Laura Wallace, posted a photo of the note onto Facebook a month later, the post drew hundreds of likes, shares, and comments. Local media picked up the story.
At the time, a Walmart spokesperson told a KVOA, a local affiliate of NBC, that the company was unable to comment because it had “no way to verify the origin of the letter.”
Journalist Rossalyn A. Warren traveled to China in search of the prison in question.
Warren traveled to Guilin City in the Guangxi region of southern China.
When Warren reached the supposed address, she discovered that the facility had closed. Speaking with residents who lived near the facility, she confirmed that the prison did exist, and that it indeed forced inmates to make products.
Many residents either worked at the prison or knew a family member who did.
Over the years, shoppers have found hidden notes in stores. The notes say they’re written by Chinese prisoners.
In May @thegoods (formerly Racked) sent me to China to trace the origin of those notes.
— Rossalyn Warren (@RossalynWarren) October 10, 2018
One resident, identified by the pseudonym Zhenzhu, said her husband was employed as a construction worker to build the prison, and after it was completed visited the facility for maintenance checks and more construction.
Trucks from Guangdong Province would regularly drive fabric in and out of the prison, Zhenzhu’s husband told her.
When Warren contacted Walmart for the story, the company informed her that it launched an internal investigation following the news of the letter. The company found that the handbag did not meet Walmart’s labor standards.
“Through our investigation into this matter, we found the supplier’s factory sent purses to be made at other factories in the region that were not disclosed to us. The supplier failed to follow our standards, so we stopped doing business with them. We take allegations like this seriously, and we are committed to a responsible and transparent supply chain. There are consequences for our suppliers when our standards are not followed,” Walmart said in a statement to Vox.
Walmart declined to say whether the supplier had contracted with the Yingshan prison.
A similar incident had occurred back in 2011, a saga that is the subject of a recent documentary, “Letter from Masanjia.”
Julie Keith from Oregon opened a package of Halloween decorations from a local K-Mart and found a handwritten note in Chinese and English describing horrible conditions at the Masanjia Labor Camp, a facility notorious for its brutal treatment of primarily Falun Gong political prisoners.
After the incident brought international attention to China’s forced labor camp system—followed by a series of Chinese media exposes on Masanjia—the Chinese regime announced in 2013 that it would abolish its system of laogai, which means “re-education through labor,” for political dissidents.
However, many detainees have instead been transferred to other detention facilities where abuse still continues, such as black jails.
Supply Chain Problems
The Yingshan Prison incident and others like it have illustrated how supply chains in China are often opaque and difficult to trace, and how Western companies inadvertently become participants in China’s slave-labor economy.
In some instances, Chinese manufacturers openly advertise the use of prisoners for labor, according to an April 2018 report by World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong (WOIPFG). The organization has documented numerous cases where practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual meditation practice that is banned and severely persecuted by Beijing since 1999, were sentenced to forced labor camps or prisons where detainees were forced to make products for export.