We still have slaves, they’re just invisible to us now

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.

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  1. Edward
    Posted April 30, 2014 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    And that’s why they can afford to make products and ship them around the world to the United States for less than we can make them for here. They use slave labor, and they don’t worry about things like worker safety and the environment.

  2. wobblie
    Posted May 1, 2014 at 4:18 am | Permalink

    a very appropriate May Day article Workers of the World Unite you have nothing to lose but your chains. see you at Water Street.

  3. John Galt
    Posted May 1, 2014 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Maybe if these people were more respectful, they wouldn’t find themselves in prison camps.

  4. anonymous
    Posted May 1, 2014 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    We should launch a “NO PENS FOR PRISONERS” campaign.

  5. Lynne
    Posted May 1, 2014 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    It is an interesting issue to be sure. What can we do about it? One thing is to boycott Chinese products but that presents some real hardships. I have a friend in LA who is doing that. She doesn’t have a toaster because the cheapest American made toaster she could find cost $300 and she can’t afford it. Unfortunately we have allowed quite a lot of our domestic manufacturing to go by the wayside to the point where anyone trying to avoid these items as a consumer has huge additional costs, both directly in price but also indirectly in terms of time to research and find domestic products.

    One answer is to pass laws which forbid the importation of any goods manufactured anyplace that doesn’t have decent environmental laws and a good minimum wage. Good luck with that. Heck, even buying items labled “Made in USA” doesn’t mean that the goods were actually manufactured in a place subject to the standard minimum wage laws. My brother works for the GAO and he was just working on a report about the manufacturing that is going on in places like American Somoa, Guam, and Saipan. It isn’t slave labor but the workers get paid a lot less than the federal minimum wage. I am not sure if that is true of Puerto Rico too but I wouldn’t be surprised.

    There are huge hurdles to approaching this from the consumer side, I am afraid. Although unfortunately, there are even bigger hurdles to approaching this from the political side of things too. There are huge corporate interests with a lot of lobbying money. It doesn’t matter what the people think anymore unless the people happen to be billionaires. Maybe the solution is to appeal to those billionaires with a sense of decency?

  6. Eel
    Posted May 1, 2014 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    It blows my mind that the guy says “sorry to bother you.”

  7. Eel
    Posted May 1, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    One more thing. You know that people without resources are routinely arrested in China and put into these camps because they can provide free labor. People are getting rich on prison labor, and you can be sure that systems are in place to keep getting them new prisoners. So it does not surprise me at all that a young man from Cameroon would find himself arrested on trumped up charges and thrown into a prison factory. What surprises me is that they let him leave.

  8. Eel
    Posted May 1, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    One last thing. What would have happened to this man had he been caught attempting to smuggle out a message? Would he have been executed?

  9. facebook stalker
    Posted May 1, 2014 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Stolen from someone on Facebook.

    “There was a great article written in Sojourners last year about Hunger Games and how the US (the developed west) is really The Capitol and the rest of the world are The Districts. We, as a culture, are so absorbed in our consumption of things and entertainment that we ignore or forget what the cost is to the rest of the world. Thought provoking.”

  10. Elf
    Posted May 1, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    This is terrible, no doubt, but did you hear that a rancher in Nevada is being asked to pay for his use of federal lands! Now that’s oppression.

  11. Dan Richardson
    Posted May 1, 2014 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    The computer I’m reading this on was probably made by slaves or at least some pretty shittily treated workers, right?

  12. Jcp2
    Posted May 1, 2014 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    The irony of complaints about Chinese prisoners on May Day. All the experiments with the ultimate in socialism and worker rights have ended up like Communist China. Solidarity forever, comrades.

  13. wobblie
    Posted May 2, 2014 at 4:40 am | Permalink

    Jcp2, I am afraid you are terribly ignorant of history. Sweden with its Social Democracy is hardly like Communist China. Venezuela with its democratically elected socialist government is only like Stalinism in the minds of our plutocrats. The authoritarians in the world don’t really care about economics, they are only looking for power regardless of the economic system. That is why direct popular democracy is so scary to plutocrats. Stop believing the propaganda, stop being an ideologue and open your mind and become a free thinking human being.

  14. Jcp2
    Posted May 2, 2014 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    I guess my community was wrong to flee in the post war era. They should have waited around for the elections. My bad.

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