A Chinese slave laborer reached out for help in a clever and courageous way: he slipped a letter into a product he was making for export, which wound up for sale at Kmart.
Kmart shopper Julie Keith recently found the note between two Styrofoam tombstones in a Halloween decoration kit she bought in October 2011. Written primarily in English, the letter described the conditions in the Masanjia forced labor camp in Shenyang.
The writer alleged that laborers received no trials, but served terms averaging one to three years. The Oregonian confirmed that “China’s re-education through labor is a system of punishment that allows for detention without trial.”
The letter stated that inmates were forced to work 15 hours a day with no days off, according to the Examiner.
Former inmates have corroborated this information. One person recalled having to sit and work all day except toilet breaks and said they were not fed properly. This inmate also claimed that the camp did not pay the laborers anything. The letter Keith found reported compensation of just $1.61 per month.
Another former inmate reported 18-hour work days.
The letter writer said that “thousands” of people would thank the recipient for forwarding the missive to world human rights organizations. He wrote that many of those people were practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual group that the Chinese government has banned, and that those people suffered “more punishment than others.”
According to the Examiner, “it is illegal to import items produced or manufactured in a foreign country by forced labor under Title 19, section 1307 of U.S. Code.” The federal government is investigating and Sears Holdings, which controls Kmart, says it is conducting its own investigation.
The revelations in the letter, though not necessarily new, have important implications for labor in the United States. Some American politicians argue that the U.S. must lower its workers’ wages because it is losing jobs to foreign, less-developed countries where laborers earn little. They fear that companies are moving their manufacturing facilities from the U.S. to places like China in order to save on labor costs.
Right-wingers use this as an excuse to battle unions, trying to weaken them with “right to work” laws and other restrictions on their activities and limitations on their ability to bargain, because robust unions mean higher wages. Conservative politicians may be motivated by a desire to maximize the profits of wealthy corporation owners, or, as they often claim, are trying to keep jobs within their own states by enticing employers with laws that depress wages. Either way, it is undeniable that unions garner higher pay for their members, and that workers in comparable non-union workplaces earn less.
But Americans will never, and should never, earn $1.61 a month or work 15-18 hours a day, seven days a week. That is what it would take to compete with the wages and hours at manufacturers like the Chinese Masanjia Labor Camp. Rather than even try to destroy Americans’ standard of living — and violate their human rights — by matching these conditions, government officials should be working with economists, labor leaders, and other experts to create jobs with good conditions that pay well and to keep them stateside.
In the meantime, international authorities must do whatever it takes to dismantle the prison camp system in China and to rescue the miserable inmate who put it all on the line to send out a message in a tombstone.