Tesco facing Christmas card forced labour claims

Six-year old’s discovery of a note from prisoners in a Chinese gulag puts spotlight on retailer’s relationship with suppliers

(Image credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Tesco has suspended production at a factory in China after it emerged the supermarket’s charity Christmas cards may have been made using forced labour.

The issue came to light after a six-year-old schoolgirl from south London opened one supposedly unused card decorated with a kitten wearing a Santa hat to find a despairing message from a Chinese gulag.

“We are foreign prisoners in Shanghai Qingpu prison China,” the message read in capital letters. “Forced to work against our will. Please help us and notify human rights organisation.”

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The note also urged the reader to contact Peter Humphrey, a former journalist who spent 23 months imprisoned at the same Qingpu prison.

The Sunday Times, which broke the story, says the Christmas cry for help from a Shanghai prison “has turned an embarrassing spotlight on Tesco’s relationship with its Chinese suppliers and their use of forced prison labour”.

The supermarket chain’s charity cards will this year earn £300,000 for the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and Diabetes UK, “but the real price of cards that sell for £1.50 per box of 20 is that they might be benefiting the Chinese government’s prison system”, says the paper.

“The incident highlights some of the risks for big retailers sourcing low-cost products from suppliers in countries with weak human rights protections and opaque supply chains,” says the Financial Times.

The Guardian reports that “similar notes from Chinese prisoners have been reported in the past”.

In 2017, Jessica Rigby, from Essex, found a handwritten note in a Christmas card contained within a box bought from Sainsbury’s. It translated as: “Wishing you luck and happiness. Third Product Shop, Guangzhou Prison, No 6 District.”

In 2014, Karen Wisínska from Northern Ireland said she found a note in a pair of Primark trousers she bought in Belfast alleging slave labour conditions in a Chinese prison making clothes for export.

Writing in the Sunday Times, Humphrey said “the problem for British and other western companies attempting to follow fair trade guidelines is that nobody outside a Chinese prison has any real chance of knowing what goes on inside. I don’t believe major British companies would knowingly commission prison labour, but they may never be able to tell if their Chinese suppliers are sub-contracting production to the prison system”.

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