Florence Widdicombe at home with the card in which she found a message pleading for help
Florence Widdicombe at home with the card in which she found a message pleading for helpTOM STOCKILL
When Florence Widdicombe opened a box of Tesco charity Christmas cards to send them to her friends, the six-year-old schoolgirl from Tooting, south London, was startled to find that one of them had already been used. The card, featuring a kitten in a Santa hat, contained a despairing message from a Chinese gulag.
“We are foreign prisoners in Shanghai Qingpu prison China,” the message read in capital letters. “Forced to work against our will. Please help us and notify human rights organisation.” Florence had accidentally stumbled on a chilling link between British Christmas fun and Chinese human rights abuse.
The prisoners’ message, with handwriting changed to protect their identities
The prisoners’ message, with handwriting changed to protect their identities
The Christmas cry for help from a Shanghai prison has turned an embarrassing spotlight on Tesco’s relationship with its Chinese suppliers and their use of forced prison labour.
The supermarket chain’s charity cards will this year earn £300,000 for the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and Diabetes UK. But the real price of cards that sell for £1.50 per box of 20 (or three boxes for £3) is that they might be benefiting the Chinese government’s prison system.
The message on Florence’s card went on to urge the finder “to contact Mr Peter Humphrey” without explaining why. Florence’s father Ben googled the name, and found a story about a former British journalist who had spent two years in jail in China — at the same Qingpu prison.
That journalist was me. On Monday I received a startling message through the LinkedIn business network. It was from Mr Widdicombe, a civil servant specialising in criminal justice, who explained about the card from Qingpu. I was suddenly plunged back to a painful two-year period of my life when I was working in Shanghai as a corporate fraud investigator.
My activities upset the Chinese government, which jailed both me and my American wife, Yu Yingzeng, on bogus charges that were never heard in court.
I do not know the identities or nationalities of the prisoners who sneaked this note into the Tesco cards, but I have no doubt they are Qingpu prisoners who knew me before my release in June 2015 from the suburban prison where I spent nine of my 23 months.
I got to know many foreign inmates in Qingpu, and for a while found ways to contact them after my release. But prison sources told me that censorship of outbound and inbound correspondence has been tightened up this year, which may be why none of the prisoners I know was able to write to me about their work directly. So they resorted to the Qingpu equivalent of a message in a bottle, scribbled on a Tesco Christmas card.
I have since contacted several members of an informal network of ex-prisoners we jokingly refer to as the Qingpu Prison Alumni Association. Some of them confirmed that inmates in the foreign prisoner unit are being forced into mundane manual assembly or packaging tasks.
“They have been packing Christmas cards for Tesco, and also Tesco gift tags, for at least two years,” said one ex-prisoner who now lives in the UK after his release from Qingpu last year.
“The foreign prisoners just package the cards. They pick different designs, put them into boxes, seal them and pack them into shipping cartons.” They also make packaging and tags for western clothing and other companies. I recall from my own time at the prison seeing product tags with the names of other high street brands.
Widdicombe said he chose the Tesco cards because they were funny and they were cheap, and ideal for kids. “When I looked at the message in the card I thought it was incredible and wondered if it was a prank,” he added.
When he realised the message must be genuine he thought it would be “wrong not to pass it on to its intended recipient. It must have been very risky for those prisoners”.
Tesco said yesterday that as soon as the company learnt of the Widdicombe’s discovery, the factory that produced the cards was suspended pending an investigation by an “expert in-country team”.
The spokesman added: “We do not allow the use of prison labour in our supply chain.” But the incident has highlighted the difficulty of monitoring production of cheap goods in China, where sub-contracting is common and the use of forced labour is often difficult to detect.
Jeremy Lune, chief executive of Cards for Good Causes, the UK’s largest multi-charity Christmas card organisation, said there should be an investigation into the evidence of prison labour being used in the manufacturer of charity cards. “Charities exist to help people, not to put them under duress,” he added.
Florence’s find echoes similar episodes involving smuggled pleas from desperate inmates. In 2012 an American charity worker opened a box of Chinese-made Halloween decorations to find an unsigned letter from an inmate at the Masanjia labour camp in Shenyang, China. The letter claimed inmates were being forced to work 15 hours a day without weekend or holiday breaks “otherwise they will suffer torturement, beat and rude remark [sic]”.
In 2017 another Chinese message surfaced in a Christmas charity card sold by Sainsbury’s to Jessica Rigby of Braintree, Essex. Rigby had the Chinese characters translated and was told they read: “Wishing you luck and happiness. Third product Shop, Guangzhou Prison, Number 6 District.”
Rigby was upset at the thought that British charities might be benefiting from Chinese prison slavery. “You hear horror stories about these prisons,” she said. “It’s not a very festive thought.”
The problem for British and other western companies attempting to follow fair trade guidelines is that nobody outside a Chinese prison has any real chance of knowing what goes on inside. I don’t believe major British companies would knowingly commission prison labour, but they may never be able to tell if their Chinese suppliers are sub-contracting production to the prison system. The Tesco spokesman claimed the company had a “comprehensive auditing system in place” in China. The Shanghai factory that printed the cards “was independently audited as recently as last month and no evidence was found to suggest it had broken our rule banning the use of prison labour”.
The daunting reality is that China’s prisons are closed to independent auditors who have little chance of unravelling the secretive business arrangements that have turned the jail system into a lucrative profit centre for the Chinese state.
“This is an enormous industry in China,” said Kenneth Kennedy, a senior policy adviser for forced labour programmes at the US Department of Homeland Security, which has been investigating the use of prison workers for years.
All this suggests that companies trading in the kind of products that emerge from Chinese prisons need to be unusually vigilant to protect themselves from allegations that they are profiting from abuse. A chance discovery by a six-year-old Londoner last weekend underlines the urgency of the challenge.