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Is Saks Tangled Up in Chinese Prison Forced Labor?

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Image via Getty
Image via Getty

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A few years ago, under desperate conditions, Chinese prison factory laborer Njong Emmanuel Tohnain wrote a series of five letters in French and English pleading for help, and smuggled them to the outside world the only way he could—by stuffing them into the paper bags he was forced to make without pay. And in September of 2012, one of them made it into the hands of Stephanie Wilson in New York City, who found the letter when she was digging in her Saks bag for her receipt after buying Hunter boots.

With "Help, help, help," written on the header, the letter read in part:

"I've been molested and tortured physically, morally, psychologically and spiritually for all the while without any given chance to contact my family and friends. We are ill-treated and work like slaves for 13 hours every day producing these bags in bulk in the prison factory."
It ended with the sign-off, "Thanks and sorry to bother you."

Wilson reached out to a reporter from DNAinfo and advocacy group Laogai Research Foundation, and they were able to track down Njong and verify his story. The New Yorker spoke with Njong, who has been discharged from prison, and dug into the murky supply chain issues that lead to American goods being made by forced labor.

Tiffany Bourré, a spokesperson for Saks and its owner Hudson's Bay Company, told the New Yorker they had investigated the matter but the results were inconclusive because of "the lack of information and significant time delay between the discovery of the letter by the customer and notification to Saks more than a year later."

The company prohibits slave labor and uses surprise audits to prevent its use, though Bourré told the New Yorker that nothing had changed with the supply chain in response to Njong's letter. However, some policies may change as part of its integration into Hudson's Bay.

Program coordinator for China Labor Watch Kevin Slaten told the New Yorker that American corporations use a convoluted system of contracting and subcontracting that is designed "in a way that allows them to plead ignorance" about labor problems. The International Labour Organization estimates that at least 12.3 million people around the world are victims of compulsory labor.

Njong, a Cameroon national who is now living and working in Abu Dhabi, was arrested on accusations of fraud while teaching English in Shenzhen, China. It was a crime he said he never committed, and he ended up serving a a three-year prison sentence in the eastern Shandong province. He sewed clothes, put together electronics, and made bags. Njong tucked letters in the products he was making, telling the New Yorker, "If someone could ever hear me somewhere, maybe somebody, in the course of using, could come to the letter and come to my rescue."
· An S.O.S. In a Saks Bag [New Yorker]
· Plea for Help From Man Claiming to Be Chinese Prisoner Found in Saks Bag [DNAinfo]