Tesco Suspends Chinese Supplier After Forced Labor Claim

December 22, 2019 Updated: December 22, 2019

LONDON—British supermarket giant Tesco suspended a Chinese supplier of Christmas cards after a press report said a customer found a message written inside a card saying it had been packed by foreign prisoners who were victims of forced labor.

“We abhor the use of prison labor and would never allow it in our supply chain,” a Tesco spokesman said on Dec. 22.

“We were shocked by these allegations and immediately suspended the factory where these cards are produced and launched an investigation. We have also withdrawn these cards from sale whilst we investigate.”

Tesco, Britain’s biggest retailer, donates 300,000 pounds ($390,000) a year from the sale of the cards to the charities British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, and Diabetes UK.

The Sunday Times said the message inside the card read: “We are foreign prisoners in Shanghai Qingpu Prison China. Forced to work against our will. Please help us and notify human rights organization.

“Use the link to contact Mr. Peter Humphrey.”

Peter Humphrey is a British former journalist and corporate fraud investigator.

Humphrey and his American wife Yu Yingzeng were both sentenced in China in 2014 for illegally obtaining private records of Chinese citizens and selling the information to clients, including drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline. The couple were deported from China in June 2015 after their jail terms were reduced.

The message inside the card was found by a 6-year-old girl, Florence Widdicombe, in London, the Sunday Times said. Her father contacted Humphrey via the LinkedIn social network.

girl holding Christmas card
Florence Widdicombe, 6, poses with a Tesco Christmas card from the same pack as a card she found containing a message from a Chinese prisoner, in London, on Dec. 22, 2019. (Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP)

Writing in the Sunday Times, Humphrey said he didn’t know the identities or the nationalities of the prisoners who put the note into the card, but he “had no doubt they are Qingpu prisoners who knew me before my release in June 2015 from the suburban prison where I spent 23 months.”

Tesco said it has a comprehensive auditing process in place.

“This supplier was independently audited as recently as last month and no evidence was found to suggest they had broken our rule banning the use of prison labor,” the spokesman said. “If a supplier breaches these rules, we will immediately and permanently de-list them.”

The cards were produced at the Zheijiang Yunguang Printing factory, which is about 60 miles from Shanghai Qingpu prison, Tesco said.

The company, which prints cards and books for food and pharmaceutical companies, says on its website that it’s a supplier to Tesco.

Two phone calls and one emailed request for comment to the company went unanswered outside of usual business hours on Dec. 22.

Humphrey and his wife said at their trial they hadn’t thought they were doing anything illegal in their activities in China.

In 2012, an American woman found a handwritten letter inside a Halloween decoration kit she bought at Kmart. The letter was from a man detained at the notorious Masanjia Labor Camp in the northern Chinese city of Shenyang, who had written a plea for help: “please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization [sic],” it began.

The person described harsh conditions—15-hour workdays without any break on weekends or holidays, torture, and verbal abuse.

By Paul Sandle, Yingzhi Yang and Yilei Sun