Thursday, July 31, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Woman finds note in Saks Fifth Ave. shopping bag from a Chinese prison worker

This story will make you think twice before you buy anything.

Woman finds note in Saks Fifth Ave. shopping bag from a Chinese prison worker

This story will make you think twice before you buy anything.

It’s no secret that pretty much everything you purchase everyday is made in China. What some people are not aware of is the terrible circumstances under which your handbag, shoes, or computer is made.

West Harlem resident Stephanie Wilson was shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City where she had just purchased a pair of Hunter rain boots. The 28-year-old reached into her bag for the receipt and instead found a handwritten letter that read across the top: “Help! Help! Help!” 

A Chinese prison factory worker by the name of Tohnain Emmanuel Njong had scribbled a heart-wrenching letter that detailed the conditions of the facility he was working in, which produced the bags used at Saks. "We are ill-treated and work like slaves for 13 hours every day producing these bags in bulk in the prison factory,” he wrote. "I read the letter and I just shook," Wilson told DNAinfo.com. "I could not believe what I was reading." Along with the note came a passport photo of the author and a Yahoo.com email address on the back. The message was dated on June 15, 2012 and Wilson found it in September of that same year. 

(Image via DNAInfo.com)

Wilson took her findings to the Laogai Research Foundation, a D.C.-based organization that fights for human rights abuses in Chinese prisons. The investigation began, but an email sent to the address provided bounced back. Harry Wu, the LRF’s founder and a former Chinese prisoner, said that Njong had taken a huge risk in writing and placing the letter, exposing him to “solitary confinement” or “even death.” When their investigation was unsuccessful, they turned it over to the Department of Homeland Security. The DHS said that this wasn’t the first time a case like this had come to their attention.

Saks was notified of the letter and a rep said they were taking the case very seriously. Tiffany Bourse, a spokesperson for the brand who owns the department store, admitted that the bags are made in China, but was unable to determine the exact origin of the one in question. They are currently ensuring that all vendors are obeying the company’s standards when it comes to workers’ rights, and U.S. laws prohibit products made using forced or slave labor from coming into the country.

Luckily there is a silver lining to this terrible story. DNAinfo was able to locate Tohnain Emmanuel Njong – who is alive and well at the age of 34 in Dubai with a secure job – said he was released from the prison in December of 2013. He said he had written five letters "It was the biggest surprise of my life," he said. “I am just happy that someone heard my cry."

When he was arrested in May of 2011, Njong was teaching English in a southern Chinese city and was charged with fraud, a crime he says he did not commit. He was held at a detention center for 10 months where he was not allowed to communicate with anyone outside of those walls. His family did not know of his whereabouts and thought he had died. After his sentence he was put on a plane back home and reunited with his relatives.

Gabrielle Bonghi Philly.com
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