A message by foreign prisoners in China pleading for help has been found in a Tesco charity card by a six-year-old girl.
The company has stopped working with a factory in China after Florence Widdicombe, from Tooting in London, opened a card featuring a kitten wearing a Santa hat and found the message. Tesco donates £300,000 a year to the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and Diabetes UK from the sales of the cards. The message, in capital letters, read: “We are foreign prisoners in Shanghai Qingpu prison China.
“Forced to work against our will. Please help us and notify human rights organisation.”
Tesco said it was shocked by the find and had started an investigation. Florence’s father, Ben Widdicombe, contacted Peter Humphrey – a former journalist named in the card, who spent two years in the same prison. Mr Humphrey said the message from Mr Widdicombe took him back to the “painful two-year period” when he and his wife were imprisoned over “bogus charges”.
Mr Humphrey said he did not know who wrote the message but had “no doubt” they knew him during his time in the prison. The jail is also 62 miles (100km) from the Zheijiang Yunguang Printing factory where the cards are supposed to be made. He said ex-prisoners had confirmed that inmates in the foreign prisoner unit “are being forced into mundane manual assembly or packaging tasks” – including packing Christmas cards and gift tags for Tesco for at least the past two years.
Mr Humphrey said prisoners also make packaging and tags for Western clothing and that he had seen the names of other high street brands on the tags when he was in the prison.
A Tesco spokesman told sources: “We would never allow prison labour in our supply chain.
“We were shocked by these allegations and immediately halted production at the factory where these cards are produced and launched an investigation.
“We have a comprehensive auditing system in place and this supplier was independently audited as recently as last month and no evidence was found to suggest they had broken our rule banning the use of prison labour.
“If evidence is found we will permanently de-list the supplier.”
Mr Humphrey said he did not believe 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”. He said auditors are not allowed into the prisons so there is “little chance of unravelling the secretive business arrangements that have turned the jail system into a lucrative profit centre for the Chinese state”.
In 2017, Jessica Rigby, from Braintree, found a message in a Christmas card from Sainsbury’s which read in Chinese: “Wishing you luck and happiness. Third product Shop, Guangzhou Prison, Number 6 District.”
And in 2014, a woman in Belfast said she had found a note written in Chinese and wrapped inside a prison identity card inside some trousers from Primark.
The note, which had SOS at the top, claimed inmates at Xiangnan jail in Hubei, China, were forced to work 15-hour days producing clothes. Primark said it regularly inspected its factories and “no prison or other forced labour of any kind was found during these inspections”.