A Prisoner’s Desperate Plea from China Tucked into a Saks Fifth Ave. Shopping Bag

A Prisoner’s Desperate Plea from China Tucked into a Saks Fifth Ave. Shopping Bag

Multimedia from this Release

The letter Stephanie Wilson found accompanied by a photo of the author

Stephanie Wilson, Senior Project Manager at Social Accountability International (SAI)

The Saks Fifth Ave shopping bag

Wednesday, May 7, 2014 - 4:00pm

CONTENT: Press Release

NEW YORK, May 7, 2014 /3BL Media/ - A prisoner’s desperate plea from China tucked into a Saks Fifth Ave. shopping bag has catapulted into the viral stratosphere. Behind the catapult is Stephanie Wilson, Senior Project Manager at Social Accountability International (SAI).  The perfect person to find the note, Stephanie possessed the determination, the knowledge of international labor rights and the savvy to trigger a series of events leading to DNAinfo locating the author, a man from Camaroon now released from prison and working in Dubai.

Tohnain Emmanuel Njong, who wrote the note and slipped it into the bag, took the brave and desperate step of exposing the dreadful forced prison labor working conditions. It is a heart wrenching example of how the products we purchase, even those as inconspicuous as a shopping bag, are often made at the expense of workers’ rights worldwide.

The Challenge

Mr. Njong’s case is not unique. His story is a window into the opaque world of global manufacturing.

When Stephanie found the note, she brought it to the attention of her colleagues at SAI who developed with her a strategy to navigate the complexity of the global supply chain to locate where the shopping bags were produced. Stephanie’s position at SAI and help from her colleagues led to the identification of Laogai Research Foundation as the appropriate place to take the letter, pursuing next steps in responding to Njong’s brave outreach. But how many other individuals find similar pleas, and not working in the field of human and labor rights, have no idea how to move forward? Opacity makes it difficult for individual consumers to connect, and presents a real and present challenge.

More traceability in supply chains is key to preventing the ongoing proliferation of forced and compulsory labor worldwide, but it is dauntingly difficult to implement. For global retailers and brands, this is a serious challenge.

We as consumers can play an integral part of the process just by letting stores and brands know we want to “ shop for a better world”, taking decent work conditions and environmental stewardship into account as we decide which brand to reach for or which store to walk into.

Typically, household name brands and retailers do not own the factories or farms producing their goods. Often the first tier facilities send production to other sites without letting their brand customers know. This practice makes it enormously difficult for brands and retailers to know even where their goods are being manufactured, the necessary start of any quest to ascertain working conditions.

What you can do

You can support human rights for workers by encouraging governments around the world to fulfill their duty to protect workers and by supporting companies and non-profits that respect human rights and are actively working to end human rights abuses.

You can make a difference by educating yourself about labor rights and supply chains and enquiring about company practices. Read sustainability reports of brands and retailers and check to see if they report on the indicators given by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)’s G4 guidelines. This is an international benchmark for transparent sustainability reporting. Use your power as a consumer by sticking with brands that are actively working to ensure humane working conditions. Ask if the company participates actively in a multi-stakeholder organizations dedicated to human rights at work (e.g. the Ethical Trading Initiative, the Fair Labor Association or SAI).

There are multiple standards for decent work, such as, Fairtrade’s Standard for Hired Labor (FLO), SAI’s SA8000, and the Sustainable Agriculture Network/Rainforest Alliance (SAN/RA). Understand what good practices each system promotes. You can check out their web sites, read their newsletters, and support their .work

What SAI is doing

SAI works with companies, governments, unions, workers and communities to improve supply chain mapping and engages in training to enable workers and managers to improve their work places. SAI works together with these parties to understand, uncover, and remedy the myriad forms that forced or compulsory labor takes. And forced or compulsory labor is prohibited in SA8000.  The newly revised SA8000:2014 is due to be released this summer.

Ultimately, preventing labor abuses and developing basic transparency in the supply chain is a mission we must pursue together. Success first and foremost requires governments to enforce labor laws that meet United Nations (ILO) standards.  Success depends too on farmers, factories, brands, retailers and everyday shoppers like you and me to call for and invest in the effort to rout abuses from their purchasing. To protect people like Tohnain Emmanuel Njong, workers themselves need to know their rights under the law and their universal rights, and they need effective grievance systems in the case of violations.

Think hard -- if you find a plea for help, what will you do? Would you throw away Njong’s letter? Or, as Stephanie did, will you put in the effort to protect those who make the goods you buy?

To find out more about SAI’s efforts to protect workers visit our website at www.SA-intl.org, or email Michelle Bhattacharyya at mailto:mbhattacharyya@sa-intl.org.