I cannot forget a young girl I met in Brazil, whose small hands were horribly injured and bleeding from plucking oranges. She asked me a simple question, to which I did not have an answer: “How can the world enjoy the juice from these oranges when children like me have to shed their blood to pluck them?”
Disturbing global developments have added a sinister twist to child labor and trafficking. This was supposed to be the century of empowerment for the most marginalized. Instead, we are witnessing globalization of the most perverted kind, with children becoming victims many times over.
Traffickers can easily prey amid chaos, children in conflict zones are particularly vulnerable. Syria has commanded attention for years because of the horrific violence to which children there are subjected. But the global rise of organized gangs means that children in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe are also at risk.
Worse, according to the most recent data from the International Labor Organization, the world has made the least progress in protecting two of the most at-risk populations: children between the ages of five and 11, and young girls.
AT SAKS FIFTH AVE. Stephanie Wilson was reaching for a receipt inside a paper shopping bag from Saks Fifth Avenue when she found a letter pleading, “HELP HELP HELP.”
The message, written in blue ink on white lined paper, appeared to be a desperate cry from a man who said he made the bag while being unfairly held in a Chinese prison factory more than 7,000 miles away.
“We are ill-treated and work like slaves for 13 hours every day producing these bags in bulk in the prison factory,” continued the letter, which was tucked into the bottom of the bag. It ended, “Thanks and sorry to bother you.”
“I read the letter and I just shook,” said Wilson, 28, an Australian who lives in West Harlem. “I could not believe what I was reading.”
The note, which Wilson found after buying a pair of Hunter rain boots at Saks in September 2012, was signed Tohnain Emmanuel Njong and was accompanied by a small passport-photo sized color picture of a man in an orange jacket, she said.
The letter, which also included a Yahoo email address on the back, triggered a hunt for the whereabouts of the mystery man.
Harry Wu, the founder of Laogai Research Foundation, spent 19 years in a Chinese prison factory, known as laogai. He said he took steps to verify the letter and believes that Njong took a huge risk in writing and sending it.
“There would be solitary confinement until you confess and maybe later they increase your sentence — or even death,” Wu said.
According to DHS senior policy adviser Kenneth Kennedy, the department was made aware of a woman in Oregon who made international news in 2012 when she discovered a similar letter detailing abuse and grueling labor in a Chinese prison when it fell from a Halloween decoration she’d bought at Kmart.
Using the now-inactive email address and social media accounts, DNAinfo located a man who said he wrote the letter that Wilson found.
In a two-hour phone interview, a man who identified himself as Njong said he wrote the letter during his three-year prison sentence in the eastern city of Qingdao, Shandong Province.
Unprompted, Njong described obscure details in the letter, like its mention of Samuel Eto’o, a professional soccer player on English premiere league team Chelsea, who like Njong is from Cameroon in West Africa.
He added that he wrote a total of five letters while he was behind bars — some in French that he hid in bags labeled with French words, and others in English, he said.
Njong, who is now 34, said he had been teaching English in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen when he was arrested in May 2011 and charged with fraud, a crime he said he never committed.
He said he was held in a detention center for 10 months while awaiting a government-sponsored lawyer, who represented him at his court trial and sentencing. He said he was barred from contact with the outside community.
Njong’s arrest and imprisonment were confirmed by his legal aid lawyer in China.
Embassies for Cameroon in Beijing and Washington did not return emails or calls for comment. The Chinese embassy in New York did not respond to requests for comment.
Njong said he was imprisoned in the eastern city of Qingdao, Shandong Province, where he was forced to work long days in a factory, starting at 6 a.m. and continuing as late as 10 p.m. He sometimes made paper shopping bags like the one from Saks, while other times he assembled electronics or sewed garments.
Each prisoner was required to meet a daily production quota, Njong said. He said he and the other convicts were given a pen and paper to record their productivity — and that he used that pen and paper to secretly write his letters.
“We were being monitored all the time,” Njong said. “I got under my bed cover and I wrote it so nobody could see that I was writing anything.”
He said he hoped the letter would help lead someone to him.
“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,” explained Njong.
Njong said he was discharged from prison in December 2013 — he received a reduced sentence for good behavior — and was put on a plane back to Cameroon, where he reunited with relatives who had no idea what had happened to him and had believed him to be dead, he said.
“It was the biggest surprise of my life,” said Njong. “I am just happy that someone heard my cry.”
Wilson, who has never spoken to Njong, said she thinks about his plea for help all the time. She had always been mindful of the products she purchased and where they were made in a bid to avoid sweatshop labor, but she never thought to worry about generic products like shopping bags.
Read more: Saks Fifth Ave. Shopper Finds Prison Laborer’s Secret Cry For ‘HELP’ Inside Shopping Bag
Another note found in the zipper section of a purse purchased at the Sierra Vista Walmart by Laura Wallace, appeared to be from a Chinese prisoner.
According to a Fox News report, Wallace had the letter translated three times, just to ensure its accuracy. The letter read:
“Inmates in the Yingshan Prison in Guangxi, China are working 14 hours daily with no break/rest at noon, continue working overtime until 12 midnight, and whoever doesn’t finish his work will be beaten. Their meals are without oil and salt. Every month, the boss pays the inmate 2000 yuan, any additional dishes will be finished by the police. If the inmates are sick and need medicine, the cost will be deducted from the salary. Prison in China is unlike prison in America, horse cow goat pig dog (literally, means inhumane treatment).”
Wallace told KVOA, “I’m very sure that that’s exactly what the note says.”
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