Imagine yourself nonchalantly preparing for Halloween, pulling a dust-covered unopened box of decorations out of storage, and finding inside a letter. Not a message in a bottle, per se, but an eerily similar SOS: a letter that had traveled 5,000 miles over the Pacific Ocean from China to Oregon via a box of plastic and styrofoam Halloween decorations. Originally reported on The Oregonian’s website, Oregon Live, Julie Keith, a 42 year old vehicle donation manager at a Portland Goodwill store, purchased this $29.99 box of Halloween decorations at Kmart in October 2011.
She actually considered donating the unopened box to Goodwill at one point, but on that Sunday afternoon in preparation for Halloween, she pulled it from storage to decorate her Damascus, Oregon home. The unsigned letter began with “Sir: If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization.” The writer further elaborated on the treatment of workers. The letter contained Chinese characters broken up into the choppy English sentences.
“People who work here have to work 15 hours a day without Saturday, Sunday break and any holidays. Otherwise, they will suffer torturement, beat and rude remark. Nearly no payment (10 yuan/1 month). People who work here, suffer punishment 1-3 years averagely, but without Court Sentence (unlaw punishment). Many of them are Falun Gong practitioners, who are totally innocent people only because they have different believe to CCPG. They often suffer more punishment than others.”
The box did come from China, as it was clearly labeled, but it didn’t come from a factory. The decorations were packaged at the Masanjia Labor Camp in Shenyang, China, which is located in the Liaoning Province in northeast China. According to the writer of the letter, “workers” earn the equivalent of $1.61 per month. Not hour, not day, not week. $1.61 per month.
Keith was shocked when she read it and was in awe of how courageous and desperate the writer must have been. She was uncertain about what to do with the letter. Like many of us would do, she discussed it with her Facebook friends.
“I found this in a box of Halloween decorations,” she wrote in a status update that included the photo.
Her friends, who had heard of labor camps, were nonetheless stunned. “I’m sure that person feared for his/her life to include that letter in the products, but it was a chance they were obviously willing to take. We take our freedom for granted!” one friend wrote. Another friend put the situation into perspective when she said, “What’s weird to me is someone is actually thinking about, and praying something comes of this … every day of their life since they sent it out. Makes me sad this even happens.”
Some people cautioned that it could be a hoax, but Keith herself has no doubt that it is authentic, she told Fox News. A Chinese colleague at the Goodwill store where Keith works said that the letter looked authentic. “I fully believe it is real,” she said as she described how the headstones in the package were sealed together with the letter folded into eights between two headstones. The box was closed with tape. “It had to have come from where they said,” she said.
Former detainees at Masanjia have corroborated the claims in the letter. Guo Yujun, a former Masanjia prisoner, said:
“Aside from toilet breaks, we had to sit for the whole day, and make those products. There wasn’t a day off, and we weren’t fed properly. In our case, there was no pay for our work. Most are plastic and are toxic. I was making Christmas decorations, and also knitted sweaters. I had to work from 5 in the morning to 11 at night.”
The letter states that many of the people at Masanjia Labor Camp are practitioners of the banned Chinese religious group Falun Gong. There are Falun Gong activists in the U.S., and they are demanding an investigation. The U.S. State Department estimated that approximately 50 percent of the 200,000 registered detainees in labor camps are Falun Gong followers.
Title 19, section 1307 of U.S. Code prohibits the importation of all items “mined, produced or manufactured” in any foreign country by convict labor, forced labor and/or indentured labor. Sears Holdings Corporation, which operates Kmart, released a statement:
“Sears Holdings has a very strict Global Compliance Program which helps to ensure that vendors and factories producing merchandise for our company adhere to specific Program Requirements, and all local laws pertaining to employment standards and workplace practices. Failure to comply with any of the Program Requirements, including the use of forced labor, may result in a loss of business or factory termination. We understand the seriousness of this allegation, and will continue to investigate.”
The Sears Holdings Global Compliance Program states that they only purchase products from overseas companies that operate under the program requirements. The Program is detailed, with special emphasis on the concerns mentioned in the anonymous letter.
- Child Labor. No worker shall be employed under the age of 15, or under the age of completion of compulsory education, or under the minimum age for employment in the country of manufacture, whichever is greater.
- Forced/Slave Labor, Human Trafficking. We will not allow forced or involuntary labor whether in the form of prison labor, indentured labor, or bonded labor. Overtime hours must be voluntary. Migrant workers should be provided with contracts, treatment, and wages that equal those of local workers.
- Harassment or Abuse. No worker shall be subject to any physical, sexual, psychological, or verbal harassment or abuse.
- Discrimination. Discrimination in employment, including recruitment, hiring, training, working conditions, job assignments, pay, benefits, promotions, discipline, termination, or retirement on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, social origin, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or political opinion is prohibited.
- Working Hours. Except in extraordinary business circumstances, workers shall not be required to work (inclusive of overtime) more than the legally prescribed limits or 60 hours, whichever is less, and one day off in every seven day period shall be provided. Production facilities shall comply with applicable laws that entitle workers to vacation time, leave periods and holidays.
- Wages and Benefits. Wages are essential for meeting the basic needs of workers. Workers will be compensated by wages, including overtime pay and benefits which satisfy all applicable laws and regulations.
A 2009 Chinese Human Rights Defenders report documented a “hotbed of injustice,” with inmates working 20-hour days to produce chopsticks, fireworks, handbags, and more. Working conditions at Chinese factories in general have gained increased media scrutiny.
The New York Times wrote an extensive piece about the broadening opposition to labor camps. Calls to abolish forced labor camps have recently increased as inmates are often taken to the camps for minor offenses and held there without trial, the New York Times reports. “Petty thieves and prostitutes to drug abusers” counted among the 190,000 people in China’s labor camps in 2009. People can be sent to camps for offenses such as writing “down with dictatorship” and long live democracy” on microblogs, according to the Times.
Andrew Munoz, Public Affairs Officer of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), confirmed that ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations is reviewing the case.
Daniel Ruiz, section chief of the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center commercial fraud unit, acknowledged that it can be difficult to predict the length of this kind of investigation. It would have to involve the cooperation of American and Chinese authorities, and investigative findings will be released only if the agency takes action.
“We’re in no position to confirm the veracity or origin of this,” she said. “I think it is fair to say the conditions described in the letter certainly conform to what we know about conditions in re-education through labor camps.” She did say, “If this thing is the real deal, that’s somebody saying please help me, please know about me, please react. That’s our job.”
Julie Keith now checks the label of everything she buys, down to the Gingerbread house she purchased for the holidays. Her friends, she said, do the same. “If I really don’t need it, I won’t buy it if it’s made in China,” she said. “This has really made me more aware. I hope it would make a difference.”
Disturbing video footage of Chinese forced labor camps:
I am an unapologetic member of the Christian Left, and have spent a lot of time working with “the least of these” and disadvantaged and oppressed populations. I’m passionate about their struggles. To stay on top of topics I discuss, subscribe to my public updates on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, or connect with me via LinkedIn. I also have a grossly neglected blog. Find me somewhere and let’s discuss stuff.