Home Wisconsin US blocks alleged Milwaukee Tool supplier, citing forced Chinese prison labor

US blocks alleged Milwaukee Tool supplier, citing forced Chinese prison labor

A Customs and Border Protection order follows a Wisconsin Watch investigation and pleas from the wife of a Chinese political prisoner.

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Shi Minglei, the wife of imprisoned Chinese human rights activist Cheng Yuan, is shown in Minneapolis on Feb. 19, 2023. Shi applauded a U.S. Customs and Border Protection order to restrict imports of work gloves manufactured by a Chinese company accused of relying on forced prison labor to manufacture Milwaukee Tool-branded gloves. (Ariana Lindquist for Wisconsin Watch)

This story was produced and originally published by Wisconsin Watch, a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom. It was made possible by donors like you.

 

The federal government will detain imports of work gloves manufactured by Shanghai Select Safety Products Company, which was accused of relying on forced prison labor to manufacture Milwaukee Tool-branded gloves.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection on April 10 issued a Withhold Release Order that will result in the detention of gloves at U.S. ports of entry if they were made by China-based Shanghai Select and two subsidiaries: Select (Nantong) Safety Products Co. Limited and Select Protective Technology (HK) Limited. The agency cites information that “reasonably indicates the use of convict labor” in violation of federal law.

The order came 17 months after Chinese exile Shi Minglei, who now lives in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, launched a public campaign to pressure Milwaukee Tool to stop sourcing gloves allegedly made by Shanghai Select under grueling conditions at Chishan Prison in China’s central Hunan Province — and to urge retailers to stop selling the gloves or helping third parties do so.

Walmart last year removed Milwaukee Tool-branded gloves from its third-party platform and blocked future sales. It confirmed that action weeks after a Wisconsin Watch investigation found evidence that Chishan prisoners were paid pennies to make work gloves bearing the Milwaukee Tool brand.

Shi alleges her husband, imprisoned human rights activist Cheng Yuan, has been forced to use a sewing machine to produce goods at the prison for up to 12 hours a day. Shi said she could not verify he was making Milwaukee Tool products but said she heard from former prisoners of Milwaukee Tool’s production at the prison. She reported that information to the Department of Homeland Security in November 2022.

Now Shanghai Select glove shipments will be blocked or subject to seizure and forfeiture if the importer fails to prove the goods were produced in compliance with regulations, Customs and Border Protection said.

The Milwaukee Tool global headquarters are seen at 13135 West Lisbon Road, Brookfield, Wis., on March 9, 2023. (Jim Malewitz / Wisconsin Watch)


The agency did not name Milwaukee Tool or any other American brands linked to the Chinese suppliers.

The agency declined to fully detail what prompted its action, citing a need to protect its sources.

Customs and Border Protection receives allegations of forced labor from a “variety of sources,” including private citizens, media and witnesses, a spokesperson told Wisconsin Watch in a statement.

Shi applauded the new import restrictions.

“Companies that use Chinese political prisoners including my husband as forced labor will finally pay the price under US law,” she said on the social media platform X.

Milwaukee Tool, a company with a 100-year history in Wisconsin, has repeatedly said it has found no evidence of forced labor within its supply chain.

In 2023, however, two former Chishan prisoners told Wisconsin Watch that a supplier for Milwaukee Tool subcontracted work to the prison. A self-identified salesperson of the supplier, Shanghai Select, told Wisconsin Watch it manufactured the majority of Milwaukee Tool’s work gloves. Regulatory filings showed Shanghai Select was contracted to manufacture “Performance Gloves” for a subsidiary of Milwaukee Tool’s parent company, Hong Kong-based Techtronic Industries Company Limited.

The Wisconsin Watch investigation explored labor practices rarely uncovered by self-regulating corporate systems, and it sparked a bipartisan congressional probe into Milwaukee Tool’s supply chain practices. During a July 2023 hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, and the commission chair called findings from the

Wisconsin Watch report “very, very damaging.”

In a statement for this story, Smith called the Customs and Border Protection order “a win for American consumers and workers — though only a first step, as work gloves are only one of many products made with forced labor in China.”

He added: “US Customs has finally confirmed that political prisoners in China made work gloves for sale in the US.”

Speaking at a hearing last October, Smith said Milwaukee Tool representatives told him the company “discovered multiple examples of counterfeit gloves originating in (China) bearing their brand name” and that the company had “cut ties with the glove manufacturer in question.

Smith told Wisconsin Watch in a statement: “I commend Milwaukee Tool for engaging openly with me about concerns over forced labor in their supply chain and trust they will now shift their operations outside of China as promised.”

Milwaukee Tool officials declined to answer questions from Wisconsin Watch.

“We do not have any additional comments to add outside of the remarks of U.S. Rep. Chris Smith,” Heather McGee, a company spokesperson, told Wisconsin Watch in an email. “We remain strongly committed to working with partners who exhibit ethical labor practices and commit to our Code of Conduct and Policy Against Modern Slavery.”

A March 2024 Techtronic Industries Company Limited report said Milwaukee Tool, out of “extensive due diligence,” had uncovered “counterfeit MILWAUKEE-branded gloves in China, online, in third-party marketplaces, and in police raids of counterfeit resellers.”

Neither Milwaukee Tool nor its parent company has publicly named Shanghai Select as a counterfeiter or a part of its supply chain.

The Customs and Border Protection action focuses on suppliers — those thought to directly use forced labor, rather than brands that subcontract out the work, said Charity Ryerson, a human rights lawyer and executive director of Chicago-based Corporate Accountability Lab.

Milwaukee Tool is unlikely to face penalties as long as it avoids using the affected suppliers, Ryerson added.

“There’s actually almost no consequences for them, which I think is a defect in the system,” she said.

Watching from Minnesota, Shi said she still believes Milwaukee Tool was complicit in the use of forced labor. Her husband is still imprisoned in central China.

“Milwaukee Tool owes victims and our spouses an answer,” she said in Mandarin. “Truth matters.”