Christmas card ‘cry for help’: in the Chinese prison at the centre of forced labour claims

Source: The Guardian   Author: Lily Kuo

China has denied using forced prison labour after reports that a six-year-old girl in England had discovered a cry for help inside a Tesco card allegedly made by inmates.
Qingpu prison in Shanghai has come under scrutiny after a note was found in a Christmas card that read: “We are foreign prisoners in Shanghai Qinqpu prison China. Forced to work against our will. Please help us and notify human rights organisation.”

Geng Shuang, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry, said at a regular press briefing in Beijing: “I can tell you responsibly that after seeking clarification from relevant departments, Shanghai Qingpu prison does not at all have … forced labour by foreign convicts.”

Tesco, which has withdrawn the card from shelves, said the Christmas card in question was made by the Zhejiang Yunguang printing factory, about 60 miles from Qingpu prison. On its website, the factory lists Tesco and Disney as its main clients.

The company told the state-run Global Times that it had “never had any connection with any prison”. Referring to Tesco’s comments, it said: “Why did they include our company’s name? Do they have any evidence that we have been working with any prison?”

Qingpu prison, a concrete and glass compound on 20 sq km of land, held 170 male inmates from 40 different countries as of last year, according to a report by the state-owned broadcaster International Channel Shanghai (ICS). More than half the prisoners were serving sentences of 10 years or more, often for drug-related crimes.

The use of prison labour is common in China, where the practice is legal, to subsidise maintenance costs of facilities and production for Chinese companies. According to Chinese law, “prison enterprises” should not have inmates work more than eight hours a day, five days a week.

But Chinese facilities often abuse the practice, forcing inmates to work in poor conditions for long hours – as long as 10 hours a day for six days a week, according to a labour expert, Li Qiang of China Labor Watch. Foreign prisoners are usually treated a little better.

Qingpu, the only jail to hold foreign male detainees in Shanghai, appears to be a source of pride in the Chinese prisons system. It was established in 1994 with the goal of “uniting punishment and reformation” and “combining education and labor [sic] work … to reform inmates into law abiding citizens,” according to the prison’s website.

It has 51 therapists, a distance learning scheme, an art programme and a library, adds the website, which has an English version. The prison also brings in cultural crafts to “nurture the sentiments” of inmates and “rectify behaviour”.

The report last year from ICS showed inmates taking Chinese lessons, playing basketball and calling family members, in a facility decorated with plants and flowers. One detainee from Ghana, sentenced to 14 years for robbery, said prison guards spoke to them “in a civilised way”.

The facility’s “labour reform” programme includes five days of work, one day of training or learning, and one day of rest, according to Qingpu’s website.

An account from Peter Humphrey, a former journalist and fraud investigator, who was detained at Qingpu for 23 months, contradicts that depiction. Humphrey said he and other foreign inmates were forced to make products for the fashion chains H&M and C&A, among other brands. He told the Guardian he was also denied essential medical treatment.

Other well-known foreigners imprisoned there include the Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu and the American entrepreneur Jude Shaw.

Li said China’s slowing economy and the trade war with the US had put more pressure on Chinese companies to seek cheaper labour.

“We received more information about prison labour making export products this year than previous years. This may be also due to the trade war where only prison labour can produce orders priced low enough,” Li said.

According to the International Labour Organization, prison labour must meet certain requirements including wages and conditions in order to not be classified as forced labour.

“Companies have a responsibility to ensure that their supply chains are ethical and that they’re not profiting for human rights abuse,” said William Nee of Amnesty International. “Companies should be conducting human rights due diligence to ensure that their supply chains don’t involve forced labour.”

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