Wednesday, January 2, 2013

"Help! I'm a prisoner in a Chinese fortune cookie factory!"

Just before the end of the year, The Oregonian ran an unusual story from China. Lots of strange things happen in China, but here we learn not to let our amusement with the ways of the Mysterious East cloud our perception of the realities of life under China's repressive Communist régime.

You've heard the old joke... Someone opens a fortune cookie at the end of a delicious meal in a Chinese restaurant and reads, "What you just ate wasn't chicken." Well, something like this happened to Julie Keith, of Portland OR, when she opened a Halloween graveyard kit she'd bought at Kmart over a year ago.

Hidden inside was a handwritten note asking whoever might find it to help the prisoners who made the decorations in a labour camp in Shenyang, in northeastern China. The experience would be like finding a message scrawled on the back of your licence plate begging for justice for those languishing in a North American prison.

The anonymous writer asks whoever finds his note to "please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization." He goes on to describe the miserable working conditions at the camp, including beatings and other kinds of torture. Inmates are made to work seven days a week, for which they get 10 RMB per day. That's about US$1.65.

The Oregonian has contacted the US customs and immigration authorities. There may not be much they can do to the Chinese, but American law prohibits importation of items made by forced labour, so K-Mmart and its parent Sears could be liable. K-Mart says it will investigate and could -- not "will", but "could" -- end their business relationship with the factory if they can confirm the allegations in the message.

Of course K-Mart is only one of many Western companies taking of cheap Chinese labour. Foxconn, which manufactures Apple products -- including the iPad on which you may be reading this -- has received considerable negative publicity over working conditions at its huge campus in Walt's old stomping ground of Shenzhen. Morale is so bad there that Foxonn has mounted wire mesh nets around the outside of its buildings to catch employees who defenestrate themselves. [Not a joke. See article in the year-end issue of The Economist. Ed.]

And China is not the only offender. Sweat-shop conditions or worse can be found in factories all over southeast Asia -- Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, to name only three. Next time you're patronizing the Bentonville Monster or the T-Store or, errr, just about any mass merchandiser, have a look to see where the jeans or coffee maker or whatever you're looking for is made. Buy local if you can!

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