Chinese prisoners can be so thoughtless, scrawling their desperate pleas for help on scraps of paper and smuggling them into our beautifully oblivious American homes, hidden inside the cheap, disposable products that we so desperately need… Not even for a moment do they consider the temporary sadness that might result as we’re forced to reflect on the consequences of our insatiable gluttony.
About a year ago, as you may recall, we were talking about a political prisoner in China who had ruined an Oregon family’s Halloween when he decided to slip an “SOS” message into a “Totally Ghoul” toy set purchased at Kmart for $29. “Please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right(s) Organization. Thousands people here… will thank and remember you forever,” the selfish son-of-a-bitch risked his life to write, when he should have been conserving his energy and resting for his next 15-hour shift. And, today, there’s yet another story in the news. This time, the recipient was a woman in New York who had innocently purchased a pair of boots at Saks Fifth Avenue, only to find a heartbreakingly-manipulative letter, which triggering a unwelcome moment of introspection… And I’m living in constant fear, always worried that my next dollar store purchase could be the one with the inevitable, “I hope you like this porcelain figurine, I’ve lost vision in one eye due to the beatings” letter inside.
Here’s the most recent letter in the news. It was sent by a man named Tohnain Emmanuel Njong, a native of Cameroon who had somehow found himself serving a three year term for fraud in a prison factory in China’s eastern Shandong Province. “HELP HELP HELP,” he wrote. “We are ill-treated and work like slaves for 13 hours every day producing these bags in bulk in the prison factory.”
In his defense, he does end by saying, “Sorry to bother you,” which makes up for his thoughtlessness to some extend.
Njong, by the way, is out of Chinese prison now, and living in Dubai, where he was recently interviewed. Among other things, Njong, who had been teaching English in China proir to his arrest, says that he was not guilty of the charge that he was imprisoned for, and that the note found in New York was one of five that he wrote late at night, under his blanket, so that his captors couldn’t see. Some of the letters, which he’d written in French, he put into bags with French lettering. The others, written in English, got put into the Saks Fifth Avenue bags. Of the five sent out, only this one seems to have been found and reported. (The prisoners had been supplied pens and paper to record their productivity.)
Apparently, it would seem, it’s legal for American corporations to make use of forced prison labor abroad under certain circumstances. The following comes from DNA Info.
…Two U.S. laws make it illegal for products made using slave, convict or indentured labor to be imported into the United States, according to (Department of Homeland Security senior policy adviser Kenneth) Kennedy. However investigations are difficult with DHS required to prove how much a company knew about its own supply chain.
“Was there actual knowledge (of slave, convict or indentured labor)? Or was there knowledge that they avoided knowing or seeing?” Kennedy said. “All that plays into the investigation.”
A legal clause known as the consumptive demand exemption, which Kennedy referred to as “the Achilles heel of these laws,” can also greenlight imports regardless of the type of labor used if domestic consumption cannot be met otherwise…
So, if I’m reading that right, it’s OK for us to use forced prison labor as long as it’s done outside the country, and we really, really, really want whatever it is that they’re making, and can’t make it as cheaply any other way.
The bottom line is that our entire system is fucked, and, as much as we might like patting ourselves on the back, and explaining to other countries how we got rid of slavery 150 years ago, the truth is that we’re still the beneficiaries of slave labor. We just make sure that we don’t see it any longer.
Happy May Day to all the people in Chinese labor camps making the plasticware we’ll use today, as we picnic in celebration of the advances we’ve made for American workers.