image: H&M

image: H&M

Peter Humphrey was jailed in Qingpu Prison just outside of Shanghai for two and a half years before he was deported from China. While he was incarcerated, the British fraud investigator – who (along with his wife, a fellow instigator) was convicted by a Shanghai court for “illegally acquiring personal information” on Chinese nationals – worked. He and his fellow prisoners were paid meager wages to make packaging parts for companies that you have heard of: H&M, international fashion chain, C&A and consumer products company, 3M.

According to the court in Shanghai, Humphrey and his wife sold the personal information that they had illegally acquired to firms, including GlaxoSmithKline, the British pharmaceutical maker, which would subsequently come under investigation in China for allegedly bribing doctors and engaging in fraud. In light of their convictions, Humphrey and Yingzeng – who “had been hired by GlaxoSmithKline to investigate the source of a secretly filmed sex video of [the company’s] top boss in China and of whistleblower emails sent to company headquarters in London,” according to the BBC – were separated from each other, and their teenage, and jailed.  

Speaking out for the first time since his incarceration and release “under diplomatic pressure in June 2015 amid reports of ill health,” Humphrey’s account sheds light on the systematic bribery and corruption that runs rampant in China. It also brings some transparency to the shadowy practice of prison labor, which – according to Humphrey – serves to benefit some of the world’s largest apparel companies. 

As he told the Financial Times, “The prison was a business, doing manufacturing jobs for companies. Mornings, afternoons and often during the after-lunch nap, prisoners ‘labored’ in the common room. Our men made packaging parts. I recognized well-known brands, including [but not limited to] C&A and H&M. So much for corporate social responsibility.” Although, as he aptly states, “The companies may well have been unaware that prison labor was part of their supply chain.”

While Humphrey and those in his cell block were tasked with making packaging parts, “prisoners from Chinese cell blocks worked in our factory making textiles and components,” potentially for some of the same mainstream retail companies.

Humphrey told the FT that he and other non-Chinese prisoners were paid and not forced to work, although, he says, it was unclear if the Chinese prisoners were being forced and/or compensated for their work. His account is in line with consistent U.S. reports of the “ugly and opaque corner of China’s giant manufacturing and trade sector” that is prison labor, including forced labor.

Quartz’s Marc Bain notes that “prison labor in itself does not violate the conventions of the International Labor Organization,” as long as it is not forced labor, which is something that has been found to be rife in Chinese prisons. Nonetheless, U.S. trade laws have been modified in recent years to enable authorities to block imports that are suspected to have been made by way of convict labor from entering into the U.S.

Spokesmen for H&M and C&A both said they had “not observed or been made aware of the use of prison labor” in their Chinese supply chains. However, the complexity and the sheer breadth of the supply chains of these large multi-national apparel corporations makes such claims far from comforting.

Meanwhile, in the U.S.

There is something larger at play here: While prison labor conditions and levels of due process vary significantly around the world, the fact remains that prison labor is not limited to the Far East. According to Open Democracy, an independent global media platform covering world affairs, “A wave of legislation – beginning with the Prison Industry Enhancement Act in 1979 – re-authorized profitable prison labor and mandated that prisoners work during their incarceration.”

This is why, as The Atlantic put it two years ago, “Inmates are required to work if cleared by medical professionals at the prison.” If they refuse to do so, punishments “include solitary confinement, loss of earned good time, and revocation of family visitation. For this forced labor, prisoners earn pennies per hour, if anything at all.” All the while, the federal government – either directly or through third parties (if the prison at issue is privately owned and run by way of a government contract as many are) – stands to make billions of dollars each year from such labor.

According to the Economist, “At the federal level, the Bureau of Prisons [a subdivision of the U.S. Department of Justice] operates a program known as Federal Prison Industries that pays inmates roughly $0.90 an hour to produce everything from mattresses, spectacles, road signs and body armor for other government agencies, earning $500 million in sales in fiscal 2016.”

And over the years, “prison labor has expanded in scope and reach,” the Economist states. Far from merely making products for government agencies, incarcerated laborers have come to be “involved in mining, agriculture, and all manners of manufacturing from making military weapons to sewing garments for Victoria’s Secret.”

While the Constitution – by way of the Thirteenth Amendment – forbids slavery and involuntary servitude in the U.S., that does not apply when the work is being fashioned as “punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”