Although it’s well known at this point that several major companies in the U.S. rely on cheap foreign labor, coming face-to-face with what could be forced labor is, for many, a jarring experience.
"I read the letter and I just shook,” said Stephanie Wilson, 28, after she apparently discovered a mysterious note in her Saks Fifth Avenue shopping bag.
The note, found in 2012, was reportedly written by a Chinese slave laborer, DNAInfo New York reported.
"I could not believe what I was reading,” she said.
Scribbled in blue ink on white paper, the note, which was allegedly written by a man named Tohnain Emmanuel Njong, bore the title “Help! Help! Help!” and included a passport photo and a Yahoo email address.
"We are ill-treated and work like slaves for 13 hours every day producing these bags in bulk in the prison factory," the letter said. "Thanks and sorry to bother you.”
Wilson’s discovery would go on to trigger a years-long search by a human rights group and DNAInfo New York, which in recent weeks may have finally located the author of the note.
Wilson, who lives in Harlem, New York, passed the letter to the Laogai Research Foundation, a human rights group based in Washington, D.C. The group, which was founded by a victim of the Chinese labor prisoner system, started to investigate the note.
Laogai Research Foundation founder Harry Wu said that the person who wrote the letter took a great risk in doing so.
“There would be solitary confinement until you confess and maybe later they increase your sentence - or even death,” he said.
The email address attached to Wilson’s note produced no results, further complicating the search.
The letter was then passed to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security division that investigates American companies for exploiting human labor. The federal agency confirmed to DNAInfo New York that it was aware of the letter's existence, but would not say whether it has investigated anyone for a possible connection to slave labor.
The New York-based news group also reported this week that it might have located the letter’s author, who has since been released from prison. A man claiming to be Njong spoke to the group about the letter, offering extremely detailed specifics of the content of the note.
Njong, 34, alleges he wrote a total of five letters during his three-year prison sentence. Some of the letters were written in French and hidden in outgoing bags to the U.S. and France.
Prior to being arrested in 2011 and charged with fraud, a crime he says he never committed, Njong reportedly taught English in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.
In prison, the man said, inmates were given a daily production quota and a pen and paper to help them track their progress. That, Njong said, is how he was able to stow the notes on outgoing products.
"We were being monitored all the time," he said. "I got under my bed cover and I wrote it so nobody could see that I was writing anything."
He said the letter was a desperate attempt to bring his story to the outside world.
"Maybe this bag could go somewhere and they find this letter and they can let my family know or anybody [know] that I am in prison," he told DNAInfo New York.
The man said he was allowed no contact with the outside world. Consequently, he said, his family had no idea where he was during the entire time he was in prison and they assumed he was dead.
After being released in December 2013 and reunited with a family, Njong said he moved to Dubai and now holds a steady job.
“It was the biggest surprise of my life,” he told DNAInfo New York after they revealed someone had found one of his notes. “I am just happy that someone heard my cry.”
A Saks spokesperson confirmed that the company was notified of the letter in 2013 and responded by launching an investigation. The company also confirmed that its shopping bags are indeed made in China.
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