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The tip came into Wisconsin Watch: Milwaukee Tool, an internationally recognized brand, was using forced prison labor in China to produce work gloves.
Tackling the story was tricky. The person who knew what was happening in Chisan prison was also the wife of a dissident imprisoned there. A recent immigrant living in the Twin Cities, Shi Minglei feared for herself, their daughter and her husband Cheng Yuan behind bars halfway across the world.
And she did not automatically trust me. I am a Chinese national. I am also a fellow for Wisconsin Watch, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a master’s degree in journalism. I needed first to prove to Shi that I was not a spy and that she could trust me to tell her story.
I told her that I had covered human rights activists for The Guardian’s Beijing bureau. In 2017, I reported the crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists across China. Their wives became invisible advocates of human rights in China for those languishing in prisons. I told her that as a reporter, I was approached by Chinese plainclothes police who questioned my loyalty to the country and what I reported on.
Shi decided to trust me and allowed me to report the story. That started a months-long quest to find out: Were the allegations of forced prison labor true?
I talked to a renowned human rights activist who had been incarcerated in Chishan prison in central China. Lee Ming-che told me about the grueling working conditions and excessive overtime he had endured over nearly five years of imprisonment. The types of work gloves and the name of the supplier are etched in his mind.
It was 9 p.m. in Madison, and we talked over Zoom. Lee coughed from time to time at his home in Taiwan. He said he had developed a chronic dry cough after inhaling too much fabric dust working in the prison factories.
Before I reached out to Milwaukee Tool, I amassed a lot of evidence. I verified the name of the subcontractor, Shanghai Select Safety Products, through prisoners and in regulatory filings.
Milwaukee Tool declined to answer detailed questions, saying it had investigated the claim but providing no evidence of what it investigated or found. The company issued blanket denials to our questions.
I will admit, I was furious. How could Milwaukee Tool stand silent against such detailed allegations? And how has the giant corporation, in practice, upheld its policy against the use of forced labor?
I continued to amass evidence. Another former inmate who could verify Lee’s story agreed to talk to me. We decided not to publish any identifying details, and we agreed to use a pseudonym, Xu Lun, for his safety. Xu’s narrative was nearly identical to Lee’s. Both said inmates were subjected to discipline, including beatings and banning family visitations, when they failed to get the work done on time.
I attempted to purchase gloves on China’s version of Amazon. By talking with third-party vendors, I confirmed two suppliers are making work gloves for Milwaukee Tool. One of them is Shanghai Select Safety Products.
Later, I made contact with a self-identified salesman for Shanghai Select Safety Products, who verified the company was a supplier of Milwaukee Tool gloves and was manufacturing the majority of work gloves for Milwaukee Tool.
I checked customs records showing that gloves bearing the brand were indeed shipped to the United States. I went to a nearby Home Depot to buy the same Milwaukee Tool gloves that the prisoners said they made.
I presented the two former prisoners’ accounts to more than a dozen supply chain experts, human rights lawyers, union leaders and people with insight into the brand in Wisconsin and beyond. All said Milwaukee Tool could be violating U.S. law by selling gloves made with forced prison labor.
My reporting showed that such questionable behavior is rarely uncovered by the self-regulating system currently in place — or by reporters like me. I also learned that supply chains at companies like Milwaukee Tool, with thousands of contractors and subcontractors and sub-subcontractors — many of them overseas — are very difficult for reporters and auditors to investigate. Being able to speak Chinese gave me a window into this world, but it is just a peek.
And as of today, Milwaukee Tool still has no specific response to our investigation into allegations that some of their work gloves are produced by the sweat of prisoners forced to toil 12 to 13 hours a day for pennies per day.
Zhen Wang is currently serving a fellowship with Wisconsin Watch through the Fund for Investigative Journalism.