A Cry for Help in a Shopping Bag From Saks

Lilit Marcus, Shine Contributor

When Stephanie Wilson went shopping at New York's Saks Fifth Avenue, she found more than just a receipt in her bag. She discovered a letter reportedly written by the man who had made the bag, who said he was a prisoner at a jail in China.

"We are ill-treated and work like slaves for 13 hours every day producing these bags in bulk in the prison factory," the note read. It was signed "Tohnain Emmanuel Njong" and contained a small passport-size photo of the man as well as an email address printed on the back.

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"My hands literally shook as I read the letter," Wilson told Yahoo Shine. "I could not believe what I was reading. It felt very surreal. I did not know what to think. In those first few minutes, I did question the authenticity of the letter, but my gut instinct was that it was real." Wilson, who works for a human rights organization, asked friends for recommendations and took the note to the Laogai Research Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based human rights organization that focuses on Chinese jails. They in turn passed the note along to the Department of Homeland Security.

Now, two years later, the website DNAinfo.com tracked down a man who claims to be Njong for a phone interview. Njong, a Cameroonian national who says that he was teaching in China when he was arrested for a crime he didn't commit, was able to leave the prison and the country. He now lives and works in Dubai. 

As for Saks, the company could find itself in serious PR hot water if Njong's sweatshop allegations are true. The Hudson's Bay Company, which bought a controlling stake in Saks last year, has a "zero tolerance" policy about making sure that all its vendors do not violate workers' human rights. That would include whoever makes its stores' bags.

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"HBC has a rigorous social compliance program that outlines our zero tolerance policy, which includes forced labour," Tiffany Bourré, a spokesperson for the Hudson's Bay Company, told Yahoo Shine. "All vendors are required to participate in our social compliance program. As we move through the integration of Saks Fifth Avenue into Hudson’s Bay Company, all Saks vendors are aligning with HBC policies." She added, "Hudson’s Bay Company and Saks take this matter seriously and have investigated the matter."

DNAinfo recounted that according to the telephone interview with the man claiming to be Njong, he said that he wrote several letters in English and in French and tucked them into shopping bags — on which there was writing in the respective languages — that he made while imprisoned in Qingdao, a city in Eastern China. He said that while he was being held in jail he and other prisoners sometimes spent up to 16 hours a day making paper shopping bags, sewing clothes, or assembling electronics. The prisoners were given supplies so that they could keep track of their progress, but Njong said he was able to keep some of the pens and paper to write his notes on.

There's one person touched by Njong's story who hasn't yet been able to talk with him: Stephanie Wilson. "I just want to hear how he is and let him know I have not stopped thinking about him since I got the letter," she said. "I want him to know I think what he did was extremely brave and courageous, and that I believe his story will result in some type of change."

"His situation has really opened my eyes to all the other products and consumables I take for granted — like shopping bags," Wilson adds. "While in the past I often wondered about the person who made the product in the shopping bag, I now also wonder about the person making the bag. It is this person who is always forgotten about when it comes to human rights in the apparel industry."