Hungry prison slaves in China forced to pack Quaker oats
The Shanghai jail where foreigners were forced to box up Tesco Christmas cards made inmates work on other western brands too
The Sunday Times
The inmates of a Chinese jail were forced to pack breakfast cereals with Quaker Oats logos, a Sunday Times investigation has revealed.
Sachets of Quaker-branded oats were packaged by the same group of inmates whose message scribbled on a Tesco Christmas card fanned international concern last month about the use of forced labour in Chinese prisons. The message was found by Florence Widdicombe, a six-year-old London schoolgirl, as she was writing Christmas cards to friends.
Former inmates at Shanghai’s Qingpu jail described last week how they were put to work on the Quaker oats but managed to steal sachets to supplement their meagre prison diets or to trade with other inmates.
“Then an officer stopped them and made them turn out their pockets,” recalled a former prisoner now living in Britain. “Lots of sachets fell out and after that they were always searched.”
The irony of prisoners who were “doing porridge” being forced to package porridge oats was not lost on the small number of inmates familiar with British prison slang. But the claims that Quaker Oats packaging was involved came as a shock to one of the world’s leading cereal producers, now owned by the American PepsiCo conglomerate.
The Quaker brand, trademarked in 1877, chose its name as a reflection of the “honesty, integrity, purity and strength” associated with the Quaker religion. PepsiCo said it was shocked by the claims and was investigating.
Four foreign prisoners released from Qingpu in the past year have described either packing Quaker Oats themselves or witnessing other prisoners at work sorting Quaker sachets into packets of 10.
One California-based former prisoner, who asked for his real name not to be used because he still has family in China, said he came across several western brands inside Qingpu, “but the one that made me really feel sick . . . was Quaker. I’ll never touch that brand again.”
A second ex-prisoner, who was freed last March after eight years in Qingpu and now lives in Britain, said prisoners were packaging oats “for much of 2018”. He added: “There were two sorts of product, one with strawberry bits and one plain. Prisoners had to package 10 sachets into transparent [bags] and slide in a one-page leaflet, which was in English.”
A Nigerian former inmate said the writing on the packaging was in English, and therefore unlikely to be destined for the Chinese market. Peter Mbanasor, who was released last June and agreed to be named, said that, unlike with other western brands he worked on, there were no barcodes on the bags the prisoners filled. At one point he wondered if they might be working on counterfeit products — a startling form of labour for a state prison.
It was in the improbable surroundings of a home in Tooting, south London, last month that young Florence Widdicombe opened a box of Tesco charity Christmas cards and complained to her father, Ben, that one had already been written on.
“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.” The message asked the finder to contact a journalist who had previously been jailed for almost two years at Qingpu on bogus charges relating to a corporate investigation.
That journalist was me, and the story I wrote about the Qinqpu equivalent of a message in a bottle forced an immediate investigation by Tesco into its Christmas card suppliers. It also earned me a hail of abuse from Chinese officials and media, some of whom denounced the message as a “farce” and claimed that Widdicombe did not exist.
Since then several former prisoners have come forward to describe how they were forced to work on other products ostensibly destined for western consumers. Of the companies whose goods were mentioned, several launched investigations into their Chinese supply chains, including the H&M high-street clothing chain, 3M, the American company behind Post-it notes and Scotch tape, and the Dutch chain C&A.
Quaker’s addition to the list adds a new twist to the tale. Pedro Godoi, a Brazilian ex-inmate freed from Qingpu last April, said the theft of oat sachets by prisoners became a “big problem” for the jail. “Most did it, as we were somehow always hungry,” he said. “The guards tried to stop it, as the inmates stole a big quantity. Some took more than they needed and sold it to others. I got a few sachets.”
Godoi was arrested in May 2014 and sentenced to five years on a visa fraud charge that he claims was retaliation by a district official he had refused to bribe. “I started a hunger strike to protest against the forced labour, which [a senior prison official] punished me for,” he said.
Now he is back in Brazil, “I do not have to have my name hidden. I want to show my face and confront such lies that China has been telling the world.”
American and European experts claim that forced labour is easily concealed in China, where prison businesses “often operate in secrecy and under the protection of government officials”, according to Paul Midler, author of Poorly Made in China, an inside account of Chinese manufacturing practices.
“I don’t think it’s possible to be completely assured that slave labour or any other form of illicit or socially unacceptable labour is not being used in a country like China,” he added. “Some products in China are made up of 100 parts that were bought from a dozen or so suppliers. You might feel assured the factory that assembles or oversees the product is compliant. But it’s impossible to inspect every sub-supplier in the chain.”
At Qingpu, about 250 foreign inmates are held separately from Chinese ones at its No 8 Brigade. Their indoor work unfolds in the room where prisoners are fed and meet for propaganda sessions. Its windows have thick iron bars and rows of metal tables with bench seats attached.
Prisoner descriptions of the Quaker products they packaged in 2018 do not always match exactly the products in Quaker’s photographs online, but the company does use variations in colour schemes, layout and wording for its markets in different countries. Although several prisoners described packing sachets into cellophane or plastic bags, in UK supermarkets they have been inserted directly into boxes with no bag.
Mbanasor, now an evangelist preacher in his native Nigeria, said prisoners who worked in the No 8 Brigade were also used for packaging women’s face masks — of unknown brands — and making supermarket-style shopping bags. “They came in a flat paper format. We had to fold and gum the paper into a bag shape,” Mbanasor said. “We did this for months.”
The practice, he explained, was not physically to coerce inmates into working but to punish them if they didn’t.
“If we didn’t work, we wouldn’t have money to buy things and we wouldn’t get any sentence reduction,” he said. “And we would be deprived of other rights. They wouldn’t let you receive a parcel from your family, for example.” He served three years and eight months on a charge of concealing income from a crime and admits he “deserved to be punished”.
“I pleaded guilty and did not appeal against the judgment. I am only protesting against the inhumane treatment of prisoners,” he said. He claims he was put in solitary confinement after starting a Bible class for Christian inmates.
Another Nigerian prisoner, who asked to be named as Antoine, said prisoners were supposed to be paid for their work but earnings were withheld to cover fines for supposed infractions of the rules. “In the end we were working for nothing,” Antoine said.
Other prisoners confirmed that Godoi was sent to solitary confinement and went on hunger strike several times after refusing to work. Each time he was taken to Nanhui prison hospital, where “I ate to regain strength so that I could start protesting again in Qingpu. I was back and forth between confinement and hospital for a total of up to one year,” he said.
PepsiCo said: “We do not export any Quaker oats from China. Our Code of Conduct unequivocally bans the use of prison labour and applies to all our suppliers, who are audited by independent, third parties who verify that they are fully upheld. We only had one supplier operating in China during 2018 and 2019, which passed numerous independently verified, third-party audits. While we continue to investigate the validity of these claims, we do not see how they could be true given the structure of our supply chain and robust auditing process. All the Quaker oats sold in Europe are produced and packaged in Europe.”