Day after day over nearly five years in Chishan Prison, Lee Ming-che walked the five minutes from his cell to one of several manufacturing spaces on prison grounds.
The prison in China’s central Hunan Province houses political prisoners like Lee, a renowned human rights activist. Lee, a Taiwanese college administrator, was convicted in China of “subverting state power” in 2017 and released last year.
In an interview in Mandarin with Wisconsin Watch from his home in Taiwan, Lee says officials forced him and hundreds of other Chishan prisoners to work roughly 13 hours a day, seven days a week with just a few days off around the Chinese New Year. His pay? The equivalent of 48 cents a day.
“I was like a robot, doing work in the daytime and then returning to the cell (at night),” Lee recalls.
His tasks included cutting polyester fabric and sewing it together to make work gloves, producing at least 200 pairs a day.
He later learned about the company whose brand was on the gloves, stamped with a thunderbolt and the word “Milwaukee.” Shown photos of Milwaukee Tool gloves for sale at two Madison Home Depot stores, Lee verified four types of gloves he was forced to make — Free-Flex, Demolition, Performance and Winter Performance.
“As long as I’ve made them before, I can recognize them,” Lee tells Wisconsin Watch.
A Wisconsin Watch investigation found additional evidence that Chishan prisoners were paid pennies to make work gloves bearing the iconic brand of Milwaukee Tool, which has a nearly 100-year history in Wisconsin.
A supplier for Milwaukee Tool subcontracted work to the prison, two former prisoners say in separate interviews. A self-identified salesperson of the supplier, Shanghai Select Safety Products, says it manufactured the majority of Milwaukee Tool’s work gloves. And regulatory filings show Shanghai Select was contracted to manufacture “Performance Gloves” for a subsidiary of Milwaukee Tool’s parent company.
Milwaukee Tool: ‘no evidence to support’ forced labor accusation
Wisconsin Watch began its investigation after Chinese exile Shi Minglei, who now lives in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, launched a change.org petition in November to pressure Milwaukee Tool to stop sourcing gloves made at the prison. She alleges her husband, imprisoned human rights activist Cheng Yuan, also has been forced to produce goods at the prison.
A Milwaukee Tool spokesperson company says the Brookfield-based company has “found no evidence to support the claims being made.”
“Milwaukee Tool regularly conducts a complete and thorough review of our global operations and supply chain,” Kharli Tyler, vice president of brand marketing, says in an email that did not answer specific questions.
Thirteen shipments of work gloves from Shanghai arrived at U.S. ports since 2019 when Lee says he noticed Chishan prisoners making Milwaukee Tool-branded gloves, according to an analysis of shipping data provided to Wisconsin Watch by S&P Global Market Intelligence.
Listed as a consignee for the gloves: Milwaukee Electric Tool Co.
Those records end in 2020, but whether the shipments ended is unclear. Companies can ask federal Customs and Border Protection to shield their names and addresses from published shipping data, says S&P Global spokesperson Katherine Smith.
“If Milwaukee Tool was sourcing from a foreign prison, they’re in violation of Section 307,” says Charity Ryerson, a human rights lawyer and executive director of Chicago-based Corporate Accountability Lab, referring to the federal law banning imports of goods made with forced labor.
Milwaukee Tool’s parent company, Hong Kong-based Techtronic Industries Company Ltd., says it prohibits the use of “modern slavery and human trafficking.” Milwaukee Tool also told the Business and Human Rights Centre that “a thorough investigation of these claims was conducted, and we have found no evidence to support the claims being made.”
In February, in a response shared with Wisconsin Watch, DLA Piper, a law firm that represents Milwaukee Tool and Techtronic Industries, said forced labor allegations were “investigated, and denied.”
Prisoners discuss forced labor
Shi has had little contact with her husband, Cheng, since his imprisonment in 2019. She says her husband wrote three letters to his family in 2022 in which he opaquely referenced forced labor.
Shi says she aims to ease the conditions endured by Cheng, who was arrested while running a Chinese organization that advocated for victims of discrimination.
Wisconsin Watch interviewed an additional former prisoner who claims Milwaukee Tool profits from forced labor at Chishan Prison. He asked to use the pseudonym Xu Lun to protect his safety.
While incarcerated at Chishan, Xu remembers making all of the types of work gloves Lee identified as well as Milwaukee Tool’s Winter Demolition model.
The label attached to one Milwaukee Tool pair purchased by Wisconsin Watch reads the gloves were “professionally made in China.”
Xu says many prisoners developed eczema in hot and humid conditions at the prison workplace. Lee says he now has allergies his doctor blames on the dust he inhaled while working.
Contracting down the supply chain
Lee and Xu independently identified the name of the supplier that outsourced work to Chishan Prison as Shanghai Select Safety Products.
Lee says he heard the name from the prison police and also saw it on purchase orders. Xu recalls hearing the supplier’s name from a prisoner who stocked gloves.
In August 2015, Shanghai Select Safety Products signed a $1 million contract with Techtronic Trading Limited, a subsidiary of Techtronic Industries, according to a 2018 initial public offering filed in China. The contract was later renewed, and the Chinese manufacturer was contracted to make Performance Gloves for Techtronic Trading in 2017, the IPO shows.
Also in June 2015, Milwaukee Tool introduced a new product, Demolition work gloves. The next year, the company launched three more models: Free-Flex, Performance and a fingerless version of Performance.
Salesperson: ‘We’re making the majority of Milwaukee-branded work gloves’
Posing as a middleman for an American buyer, this reporter contacted a self-identified Shanghai Select Safety Products salesperson. “We’re making the majority of Milwaukee-branded work gloves,” the salesperson said in a text message.
The salesperson shared a catalog that identified Shanghai Select as a gloves supplier for Milwaukee Tool. Shi believes Shanghai Select Safety Products outsources to cut labor costs and subcontracts portions of work to the Chishan Prison corporation.
China’s government prison enterprise system requires provincial governments to pay for prison operations. Prison manufacturing contracts with private businesses generate revenue to run the prison.
Chishan Prison contains around 2,900 prisoners. The same prison corporation runs 11 manufacturing spaces within the compound, covering more than 80,000 square meters.
Examining satellite imagery, Lee and Xu each point out the buildings on prison grounds where they made gloves.
Forced labor a growing concern
Concerns over the use of forced labor in China are growing. A 2021 law prohibits importation of all goods from China’s far-western Xinjiang region due to the rampant use of forced labor. Chishan Prison sits outside of that region.
Since the 1990s, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has issued 60 active enforcement actions related to goods made by prisoner laborers, with two-thirds against Chinese goods. China in recent years has faced scrutiny related to the use of forced labor of Uyghurs, a largely Muslim ethnic minority group whom Chinese officials have forced into “re-education” camps — a move the United Nations has said could be considered a crime against humanity.
Ryerson of the Corporate Accountability Lab said the fresh scrutiny should prompt American companies to better monitor their supply chains.
“If you are so far removed from the supply chain that you are unknowingly sourcing from a Chinese prison, you are actually not keeping up with the rest of the industry,” she says.
Dragged into glove production
In the summer of 2019, Lee says he noticed many inmates pivoting away from other work to sew work gloves for Milwaukee Tool. He eventually became part of the production line of hundreds of prisoners, he adds.
Lee says the 90-plus hour weeks they produced Milwaukee Tool gloves violate China’s laws and regulations, including Chinese Ministry of Justice guidance to limit prison labor to 40 hours per week. The guidance also states prison labor products should be sold only within China.
But Chinese law prohibits work refusal by incarcerated people who have the ability to work. Prisoners can be sent to solitary confinement for refusing work, not working hard enough or “intentionally destroying tools of production.”
“There just is no evidence that prisoners can refuse to work. And so, to that extent, that would be considered slavery,” says Nicholas Bequelin, former Asian-Pacific regional director at Amnesty International and a visiting fellow at Yale Law School.
Mixed results of self-regulatory tools
Techtronic Industries Company Ltd., Milwaukee Tool’s parent company, says it uses compliance tools and third-party auditors to ensure its 2,825 direct suppliers, including 1,165 in Asia, comply with its policy against modern slavery and forced labor.
“The supplier relationship will be terminated if major compliance issues are not corrected to meet set standards,” the company said in a 2022 report.
But self-regulatory tools used by many multinational companies are often unable to detect forced labor, research shows.
For a 2021 book, Professor Sarosh Kuruvilla, a labor policies expert at Cornell University, examined more than 40,000 factory audits from 2011 to 2017 spanning 12 countries, including China. He found 45% were based on unreliable or falsified information. Audits in China were unreliable more than half the time.
Li Qiang, the founder of the nongovernmental organization China Labor Watch, says suppliers falsify information in multiple ways. “When a supplier is placed to produce 10,000 pairs of gloves but subcontracts half, it is too hidden for auditors to find it out during the on-site audits.”
Back in Minnesota, Shi says she suffers from “survivor guilt” as she lives relatively comfortably in the United States while pushing to improve conditions for her husband and other political prisoners in China. She plans to keep pressing Milwaukee Tool to stop benefitting from forced labor.
“We hope Milwaukee Tool will acknowledge it, apologize for it and stop it,” Shi says. “We won’t surrender.”
[Editor’s Note: In Chinese culture, people typically list their family name first, followed by their given name. On second-references to Chinese people quoted in this story, Wisconsin Watch is using their family name.]
Wisconsin Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative newsroom.