By Joe Wright
The story of a letter embedded in a package of Kmart Halloween decorations received by Oregonian Julie Keith immediately went ultra-viral as it detailed an excruciating cry for help from a prisoner of a Chinese forced labor camp.
The letter brought to the forefront a part of the American economy that most of us would like to ignore, or simply hope is being dealt with appropriately behind the scenes: the fact that the low prices that are such a boon to the American consumer-driven economy have a terrible hidden price attached.
As a testament to the will of human freedom, the author of the letter has gone even further and has identified himself to the New York Times. For now, he’s simply “Mr. Zhang.” He is 47 years old and has more to tell about his time as a slave.
His story takes place within the infamous Masanjia prison camp. This is the same camp where a video exposé produced by the Lens magazine documented the women’s section of the prison and its abysmal conditions, as well as the lives that have been destroyed to support its function. It’s stomach churning viewing, but a must-see in order to face the reality of what is being tacitly supported by the wealthier nations that benefit from the “work” being done there. The origins of the Masanjia camp — a former graveyard — strangely echo the Halloween trinkets received by Americans like Julie Keith. It’s a place literally built upon death and where death and nightmares continue.
Mr. Zhang’s “crime” that resulted in his detention is a familiar tale: engaging in a non-approved religious practice. The risks that Zhang took, and the lengths he went to in order to voice his desire for freedom, demonstrate a strength of spirit that might offer insight into why the State would wish to suppress such tendencies:
Moving forward with his plan to expose the horror in the camp, he secretly tore off pages from exercise books meant for political indoctrination sessions as inmates were barred from having paper. He also befriended a minor criminal from his hometown — a monitor for the guards — who managed to get him another banned item: a ball pen refill.
“I hid it in a hollow space in the bed stand — and only got time to write late at night when everyone else had fallen asleep,” he recalled. “The lights were always on in the camp and there was a man on duty in every room to keep an eye on us.”
Demonstrating his awkward position in bed, he continued: “I lay on my side with my face toward the wall so he could only see my back. I placed the paper on my pillow and wrote on it slowly.”
A college graduate, he said it took him two or three days to finish a single letter through this risky and painstaking process. “I tried to fill as much space as possible on each sheet,” he said. “Every letter was slightly different because I had to improvise — I remember writing SOS in some but not in others.
“Writing in English was very hard for me. I had studied the language but had never practiced speaking or writing much. That’s why I included some Chinese words to make sure the message would not be misunderstood because of my English mistakes.”
He slipped 20 letters into Halloween decoration packaging in 2008 and at least one, against all odds, got out and made headlines four years later. (Source)
China is home to at least 1,000 forced labor camps, called Laogai, whose goods wind up on the shelves of retailers such as “Wal-Mart, Home Depot, K-Mart, Target, Lowes, and dozens of other U.S. corporations.”  The camps were originally set up in the 1950s by Mao and have endured despite increasing awareness by the outside world of what life is like for its untold number of inmates.
Here is just a snapshot of what one can expect upon entering the Chinese slave labor system, according to a report from the Asian Human Rights Commission:
- Average age of a worker in a typical Chinese toy factory: between 12- and 15-years-old.
- Typical wage of workers in Asian toy factories: from as little as 6 cents an hour up to 40 cents an hour (in U.S. dollar terms).
- Typical number of hours worked in a day during busy periods: up to 19.
- Typical number of days worked per week: 6.
- Young workers work all day in 104-degree temperature, handling toxic glues, paints, and solvents.
- Workers weakened by illness and pregnant workers, who are supposed to have legal protection, are forced to quit.
- The typical profile of workers in these factories involves single young women migrants from rural areas to the cities in search of jobs.
The world also has heard about the suicide nets at mega camps like Foxconn where many of the big name computer products come from. With the standard conditions documented above, and worse, is it any wonder for their need? Some of you might rightly ask: Why do they put up with it? Why don’t they do something? Well, some have. Workers have rioted, even as mass organization is next to impossible with the level of control and surveillance in place. In late September, 2013 2,000 workers revolted … only to be outnumbered by 5,000 police. Sure the plant was closed for a few days to mop up, but business was eventually resumed. And resumed with the extra knowledge of remaining workers that resistance is all but futile.
So far the international community – whether human rights organizations, or foreign governments – has done little to mitigate the totality of the abuse within these facilities. There have been some nice victories such as the rescue of hundreds of children and the mentally handicapped, who had been kidnapped and subjected to 18-hour days and numerous beatings at an illegal brickyard. Nevertheless, the outrage overall has mostly taken the form of documenting the horror. But it still continues en masse, even after all of the revelations and proven involvement of America’s top product manufacturers.
As the holidays approach, it is tempting for many to take the path of least resistance and run to a Big Box store and fill carts (or our online virtual carts) with low-cost trinkets, clothes and electronic gadgets from China. Anna Hunt from Waking Times eloquently summarizes the true cost we must consider when we are faced with the example of Mr. Zhang’s plea that reached Julie Keith.
For argument’s sake, you could justify to yourself that Julie Keith’s tombstone was part of a small shipment of Halloween décor that snuck through US customs unnoticed; since it is illegal to import such products, it is surely a rare occurrence …
You could argue that you only buy from brand name companies that tout fair working conditions and pay, and ones that have outlined a publicized standard for their global workforce, such as Mattel’s ‘Global Manufacturing Principles’. The reality is that working conditions in many of the factories in China, as well as in other countries that promote inexpensive manual labor, are not what one would consider fair or just.
Perhaps the migrant Chinese worker truly doesn’t care if you do buy another plastic doll this Christmas. Perhaps their working conditions won’t change at all if you decide not to. But realize that you have also become a faceless part of this soulless equation – you are the consumer…
The decisions we make here in our frenzied journeys to malls and strip-malls impact people all over the world, the environment, our local communities and our children. Perhaps while swimming in the endless sea of disposable slave-made products this holiday season, as you start in on another holiday shopping season, you could first take pause and reflect on the nature of freedom and how our choices affect the freedom of other people. (Source)
This has to stop. And it is clear that we can’t depend upon corporations who enabled this practice in the name of their better bottom lines. Nor can we stand idly by hoping that some well-meaning organization attempts a rescue, or government attempt to enact legislation. This is a practice that is long entrenched, but at its core cannot continue forever without consumer support. Sorry, this one is on us. Anyone who has knowledge of what is taking place becomes complicit. It is the price of knowledge, but empowers us to make decisions based on conscience, not only what is a good deal.
This story has already become big enough where ignorance of slave labor is becoming a minority position. We all must ask ourselves: now that we are armed with knowledge, what are WE going to do about it? For starters, help educate others about the penalty (and crime) of apathy. Buy local, or at least be sure about the full provenance of your purchase before committing your almighty dollar. Then, offer your own solutions. What else can be done to see that others can attain the same level of freedom we claim to be fighting for on a daily basis? I look forward to your comments.
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